'Tis the season...for long lines and frayed nerves. Here's how to cope.
Do yourself a favor and ship your presents. Nearly every U.S. airline charges a fee to check a bag, so shipping gifts is now cheaper and more convenient than carrying them in your luggage. If you decide to tote your gifts aboard (we warned you!), don't wrap them first—the Transportation Security Administration reserves the right to open anything, including the presents you so painstakingly prepared.
Weigh your options
Not knowing what you're going to pay for your luggage is annoying. So calculate your overweight-luggage fees at home. You can scope the fees out in advance by visiting new site Luggage Limits, which provides the latest info on more than 90 airlines.
Have a drink later
Bottles of wine and gin? Perfume? Gift baskets? You can't take any of 'em on the plane. Liquids in containers larger than three ounces are a no-no, and even three-ouncers must be stored in a single quart-size, clear bag. You can bring cakes and pies through airport security, but you may be subject to additional inspections. For full rules, go to the TSA's site.
A blue Christmas
Fly nonstop, even if it costs a little more. The combination of huge crowds and bad weather is a massive delay waiting to happen: One big storm and the system backs up, leaving you and all the others stranded. And that's a terrible way to spend the holiday.
Cut your wait time
During the holidays, the longest lines at airports aren't at security; they're at check-in. You can usually check in for a flight and print your boarding pass 24 hours beforehand, and you should. If you're checking bags, pay for them online in advance, too: You'll save time and money, because airlines typically charge $5 or more extra if you wait to pay at the airport.
Pick a prime spot
It's the nightmare scenario: You get to the airport, and the parking lots are sold out. You won't have to worry about that as long as you book a spot in advance at an off-site parking lot via airportparkingreservations.com or airportdiscountparking.com. The best part? Off-site lots are almost always cheaper and typically have free shuttles to the terminal.
Leave amateurs in the dust
Trust us and get to the airport an extra half-hour early. The check-in and security lines are filled with inexperienced fliers, and it's a slog. Plus, if you decide to cut it close you may not get onto the flight at all. To reduce costs, airlines have dramatically scaled back on flights and routes. The remaining flights are more likely to be oversold, especially on busy travel days. Fliers who check in early are the least likely to get bumped from oversold flights.
Worried about a flight delay because of stormy weather? Type your airline's name and your flight number into a Google search bar. The site will fetch up-to-date flight status info.
And speaking of Google…
Through January 15, 2010, Google is giving travelers a holiday present by sponsoring free Wi-Fi at 54 U.S. airports. Google is also partnering with Virgin America, which offers free Wi-Fi on all of its planes through January 15, too.
Yes, it's a race
Get your bags on the plane pronto. Fliers don't want to pay fees for checked bags, and more and more of them are traveling with just carry-ons. The amount of space in overhead bins on planes, meanwhile, has remained the same. To nab a spot for your carry-on near your seat, get on the plane ASAP and be ready to store it right away. But don't elbow anyone. Remember: Santa is watching.
Movies, food, pillows, water—it's hard to keep up with exactly what airlines will nickel-and-dime you for nowadays. Cut the guesswork and bring your own amenities, including snacks, entertainment, and a travel blanket. A homemade sandwich usually tastes better than the $7 airline version, anyway.
BYO antibacterial wipes, too
No one wants to get sick, especially during the holidays, when people always seem to be fighting colds. Wipe down the airplane seat-back tray and the armrest, and anything you'll touch in the plane and airport bathrooms.
Take it public
The rates for renting a car at the airport have more than doubled over the past year because rental lot inventories have decreased dramatically. True, renting at the airport is convenient, but it's just not worth it anymore. Unless you really need a car, take public transportation, hop a cab, or beg a friend to pick you up at the airport instead.
Say no to bumper cars
Tell thepeople picking you up to avoid parking their car and instead idle it in the airport's cell-phone lot. They can hang out in their car for free while waiting to get a call from you when you land—and avoid the usual honking and chaos. Many airports, including JFK and LAX, now feature this sensible alternative.