This year’s Thanksgiving travel season could be the busiest on record for air travelers.
The Transportation Security Administration expects that it will screen a record number of travelers during the period, and there could be a similar projection when the Airlines for America industry trade group issues its projection next week.
But, record or not, what should you know if you’re headed to the airport during next few days? Plenty.
Most tips are the same from year to year: Arrive early. Brace for crowds. Pack smart. Regular travelers won’t be surprised by that. But there are updates for 2018 that travelers should know about.
If you’re taking to the skies this Thanksgiving, scroll down to see what’s new and to brush up on the basics of holiday travel.
The TSA is increasingly asking travelers to take food items out of their carry-on bags when they go through screening checkpoints. The reason: Food items add to the clutter agents see when they view X-ray images of passengers’ luggage. Removing those items allows screeners to focus on other items and could help speed the process, TSA says.
Another new focus this year: Powders, including items like cosmetics, baby powder, protein powder mixes and ground coffee, among others. TSA wants flyers to check powder-like substances if they’re in containers larger than 12 ounces (350 milliliters) – roughly the size of a can of soda. Smaller items can be brought in carry-on bags, but agents will likely ask for them to be pulled out so they can be screened separately.
The updated powder guidance isn’t a ban. But the risk for a traveler with a large container in a carry-on bag is that he or she could be forced throw away a “suspicious” substance before clearing the checkpoint. The main security concern is improvised explosives, but TSA told USA TODAY earlier this year that it is also worried about fentanyl or pepper spray being brought into cabins.
Airports will see a steady rush throughout the holiday period, but Thanksgiving is notorious for two peak days: the Wednesday before and the Sunday after. But, for 2018, a third day –the Friday before Thanksgiving (Nov. 16) – will join the mix, according to TSA.
Historically, and unsurprisingly, the lightest day of the period will be Thanksgiving itself (Thursday, Nov. 22).
Still, there will be variations at airports around the country. In San Francisco, for example, officials say the busiest Thanksgiving travel day will be the Friday prior (Nov. 16). In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the busiest post-Thanksgiving travel day is forecast to be Monday (Nov. 26), not Sunday.
Allow extra time, expect busy terminals
No one wants to spend more time than necessary waiting in an airport terminal. However, this isn’t the time of year to test how close you can cut it.
Aside from the possibility of busy terminals and long lines at check-in and security, expect heavier-than-usual traffic on entrance roadways, parking shuttles and public transportation. Inside the terminal, unusually heavy crowds may lead to back-ups at check-in counters and security lines.
A good rule of thumb for Thanksgiving: Arrive at the airport 45 to 60 minutes earlier than you normally would. You’ll be glad you did, especially if you find yourself stuck in a security line filled with slow-moving families making their once-a-year holiday trip. Remember: If you miss your flight, this is a tough time of the year to find empty seats on other flights.
Pack your carry-ons with security lines in mind. Unless you’re eligible for the TSA’s Precheck lines, laptops and liquids must come out separately to go through the screening checkpoints. The same thing goes for large electronics and food items. Remember, these items must each be placed in their own bins as you go through security.
For the infrequent flyers, remember that most liquids are prohibited from carry-ons unless they are in containers of 3.4 ounces or less and are held in a clear, quart-size plastic bag. (See the TSA’s “3-1-1” rules on liquids). Some exceptions are made for liquids related to medical or childcare needs, but it may be smart to brush up on those rules.
Pack so that your laptops, liquids and other items can be quickly taken in and out of your luggage. That will not only speed up your trip through security, but will also shorten the wait for those behind you.
If you check a bag – either in advance or at the gate after your plane runs out of overhead bin space – remember to keep all of your important medicines and valuable items in your carry-on. If you’re forced to check a bag at the last moment, remove valuables as well as fragile items that could be damaged.
Be aware of potential travel trouble spots
Watch the weather starting as early as 72 hours leading up to your flight. It may be sunny and warm where you are, but there could be problems between you and your destination. Snow, wind, rain and poor visibility are some of the most common weather problems for the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
If there’s poor weather at home – or at your destination – monitor your airline’s website for potential updates. In some cases, airlines will issue weather waivers that may allow you to move your flight at no cost to avoid weather-related disruptions.
Nearly every carrier’s website now lets you check the status of your flight. On the day of your flight (or the evening before), keep tabs on your flight status. The sooner you know there’s a cancellation or delay that could affect your travel, the sooner you’ll be able to troubleshoot it with your airline or travel agent.
Keep your phones and electronic devices handy
If your flight is canceled or delayed and you need to book a new flight, most people wait at their gate or head to an airline customer service desk to get help with a new ticket. That works, but you can also call the airline’s reservation number to ask for help in getting a new flight, perhaps beating those in line to a seat. If your phone is low on power, keep your airline’s 1-800 number handy and go looking for an old-school payphone.
You also might consider heading to the web. Many airlines have added rebooking features on their mobile apps that allow customers to select new flights during so-called “irregular” operations. That can be a little more difficult during the holidays when disruptions affect so many flyers, but – if your carrier’s mobile app has such a feature – it’s another option that might help you snag a new flight. And you can always try your hand looking for a new flight on your airline’s website or app.
Pack your patience
Perhaps the golden rule of travel, this is especially important during the busy holiday rush.
Lines are longer and airports and airplanes are even more crowded than normal. Nerves fray more easily. But even when things get stressful, take a deep breath and smile. A courteous nod to a fellow traveler will increase the chances that they’ll be courteous to you.
And never take out your frustrations out on airline employees, most of whom are conscientious workers doing their best to get everyone on their way during an intensely busy time.
Even if you’re convinced your airline has wronged you, remember that these frontline workers often control your fate in getting to your final destination. Being polite and respectful will bring better service than being hostile or rude. Ask for a supervisor if you must, but know he or she may not have a different answer than the one you’ve already been given. Above all, always try to show everyone along the way the same respect you’d want.