Summer has been a, shall we say, chaotic time for air travel.
Every week, it seems there are new headlines about mass flight cancellations and delays, lost luggage, short-staffed airlines and airports, shockingly long lines, personnel strikes, rising prices and more.
“Traveling in summer is certainly being met with challenges, however, that is not to say that you will not get the opportunity to relax on the beach you have been dreaming about, or be able to tick off a city tour from your bucket list,” Martin Jones, CEO of Airport Parking Reservations, told HuffPost. “Preparation for every turn of events is key.”
Many of the worst aspects of the flying experience are out of the passengers’ control, but there are still steps travelers can take to ease some of stress. Below, Jones and other experts share their tips for making air travel suck less right now.
Arrive at the airport extra early.
“Give yourself plenty of time at the airport,” advised Omar Kaywan, co-founder and chief growth officer at Goose Insurance. “Arrive at least three hours before your flight.”
Security lines that stretch out the airport doors are not an uncommon sight lately. Building in extra buffer time will make you feel less stressed if you encounter a particularly long or slow queue.
“Prepare for the security screening,” Kaywan added. “Don’t wear belts, heavy shoes or jewelry, or carry any liquids more than 100ml. This will speed up the process for you and other travelers.”
Consider investing in expedited airport security programs like TSA PreCheck or Clear. Members get to wait in shorter lines and skip certain steps of the screening process.
Download the airline’s app.
“Download your airline’s app and make sure you have your notifications on so that you can be the first to know about any changes to your flight,” advised Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy. “If your flight does get canceled or delayed, you can rebook your flights right on the app and avoid hours of waiting in long lines at customer service desks or being on hold with the airline.”
You can also check the app throughout the 24 hours leading up to your departure to see where your plane is coming from and if its previous flights have been on time. Websites like FlightAware and Flightradar also allow you to keep tabs on it.
Book a morning flight if you can.
Be strategic when you’re choosing flights during a busy season. Most experts agree that morning departures are your best bet for avoiding delays and cancellations.
“The earlier your flight is in the day, the better your odds of it not getting disrupted,” said Scott Keyes, author of “Take More Vacations” and founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “Flight cancellations and delays are often the result of earlier flight cancellations and delays. There’s a domino effect with planes and crews and schedules, but if you’re on one of the first flights, you’re less exposed to that domino effect. Also, bad weather tends to happen in the afternoon more than the morning.”
If you’re on one of the earliest flights of the day, your plane likely arrived at the airport the previous night, so there’s more of a buffer for that incoming flight to be delayed without impacting your trip. You might even be able to track that it’s en route or has landed at your airport before you go to bed.
Morning flights aren’t magically immune from disruptions, of course. But when you’re flying early in the day, you also tend to have more options for rebooking a same-day itinerary even if your flight does get canceled.
Do nonstop flights when possible.
Nonstop flights might be a little more expensive, but they also could save you money and time in the long run. So when you have the option, try to stick with one flight.
“Now’s the time to spend a little extra money or utilize your points to book direct,” Kelly said. “The more connections you have, the more chances you have for cancellations and delays.”
If a connection is unavoidable, be sure to build in enough buffer time between your first flight’s landing and second flight’s departure. Delays happen, and you don’t want to be sprinting through the terminal.
“The time for short, 40-minute, one-hour layovers is over,” Kelly said. “Make sure you add in a good cushion of time between flights. I really recommend a three-hour connection for both domestic and international flights.”
Come to the airport prepared in case of delays.
“You want to be prepared to entertain yourself for the duration of your flight and any delays that might happen at the airport,” Keyes said. “Download movies and podcasts and make sure your devices are charged beforehand. There are lots of things that aren’t in your control, but you can kick off your trip on the right note by showing up at the airport prepared.”
Don’t forget to bring your chargers and maybe invest in some external battery packs for your phone.
“Pack nonperishable snacks and bring an empty refillable water bottle with you,” Kaywan suggested. “Food at airports is getting more expensive and choices maybe limited. Bring a travel pillow and a scarf that could double up as a blanket if need be. If you’re traveling with small children, pack books, toys and mobile tablets to keep them occupied.”
Do what you need to do in order to feel comfortable on the plane as well.
“Since the temperature fluctuates during a flight, fliers need to bring plenty of layers or additional comfort items ― such as bed socks ― to prevent them from feeling uncomfortable when the airplane cools down overnight,” said Naveen Dittakavi, founder and CEO of Next Vacay.
Pack your carry-on strategically.
“Nothing ruins your trip more than your airline losing your luggage, so it’s best to prepare beforehand,” Dittakavi said. “If you have to check your bags, place important personal things in your carry-on luggage ― such as toiletries, a clean outfit, and swimwear, depending on where you are traveling.”
Airlines have been experiencing significant delays in getting lost luggage back to travelers. The backlog became so dire at Heathrow Airport that Delta Air Lines flew a plane from London to Detroit that carried zero passengers but about 1,000 pieces of stranded luggage.
“Pack your essentials in your hand luggage, with of course reference to the rules and regulations of your airline,” Jones recommended. “Having your essentials to hand, whether that be snacks, your medication or a phone charger, is always useful.”
Prepare your checked bag for potential issues.
“If possible, don’t check a bag,” Keyes recommended. “It’s another opportunity to encounter a long line at the airport, so there’s a higher probability that you’ll miss your flight if there’s a long wait to check bag and then in the security line.”
However, there are ways to avoid this situation if you have to check a bag.
“If a flight is in your future, many airports are allowing you to check your bags a night in advance to avoid long lines the day of your flight,” said Julia Menez, host of the “Geobreeze Travel” podcast. “Consider doing so if you have the time.”
Remove any other labels or barcode tags from previous trips before you check your suitcase. Take a photo of your bag and ensure it has a tag with your contact information as well.
“Once your bag tag is printed, make sure it has the right airport, code, name and frequent flier number,” Kelly said. “I’m a huge fan of Apple AirTags to keep track of your own luggage, and definitely hold onto your baggage receipts.”
Choose your seat wisely.
“When you’re on the flight, be sure to book a window seat,” Dittakavi advised. “You’ll be able to rest on the window and won’t be disturbed by other passengers.”
Health experts tend to agree that the window seat also carries the lowest risk for COVID spread, compared to middle and aisle seats.
“Alternatively, once the plane is in the air, look around for any empty seats that are together,” Dittakavi added. “This will give you more space and will allow you to rest easier ― just make sure to check with a flight attendant.”
Take advantage of credit card benefits.
“Always make travel purchases using a credit card rather than a debit card to take advantage of consumer fraud protections and travel protections,” Menez advised. “These protections can cover cases where you were accidentally charged twice or charged fraudulently.”
Credit card companies often offer benefits that make travel hiccups less frustrating.
“A lot of credit cards have ‘Flight Interruption’ coverage built in for free, which can cover up to $1,000 per person,” Kelly noted.
In addition to covering travel delays or other issues, many cards also include nice perks that might bring a hint of luxury or relaxation to your airport experience.
“Check to see if your card comes with free lounge access,” Keyes recommended. “The lounge is a little oasis at the airport. I’m not a very bougie person, but it really is so much more relaxing to be away from the hustle and bustle. There’s free food and drinks, coffee, nice views of the planes.”
Even if you don’t have lounge access, some cards give you restaurant credits to use at airport eateries, so check on that as well.
Test your negotiation skills.
“Always read the airline policies before flying so you know your rights if a situation were to occur,” Jones advised.
The Department of Transportation has an online guide outlining passengers’ rights, so you can be prepared to advocate for yourself. One section covers the practice of “voluntary bumping.”
Airlines routinely overbook flights and have to ask for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for vouchers or other perks. If you decide you don’t mind volunteering, be sure to understand what you stand to gain in the transaction.
“Know that you can negotiate for compensation,” Keyes said. “As they offer $300 and then $400, you should volunteer when it’s worth it to you, but if they’re looking for multiple volunteers, stipulate to the agent you want whatever compensation the last volunteer gets because that last volunteer might not step up until it gets to $1,000.”
He also advised asking for other perks, like a business class seat on your replacement flight, better routing, a lounge pass, meal vouchers and hotel vouchers.
“There’s essentially a secret menu of things you can ask for, and it’s worth requesting,” Keyes said. “If they’re desperate enough, they’ll play ball.”
Assess travel insurance options.
“This is not the time to wing it,” Kaywan emphasized. “Do not travel without travel insurance including trip cancellation and interruption.”
Again, your credit card might come with travel insurance coverage. Take the time to familiarize yourself with what that entails for your trip. If you’re thinking of purchasing a separate travel insurance plan, read all the fine print and understand what your options are. Then, don’t hesitate to use the benefits you’ve paid for when the time comes.
“I strongly suggest relying on third parties to help you ― especially when the you-know-what hits the fan,” Menez said. “It will provide you with peace of mind knowing that when you hit a bump in the road that’s stressful and potentially costly, someone’s got your back. This can mean booking your trip through a trusted travel advisor and purchasing travel insurance that also offers assistance.”
Wait a bit if you don’t need to fly.
Another option for making the air travel experience a little more bearable: wait a little. Experts are hopeful that the chaos will settle as time passes.
“If you have the flexibility and want to wait until things stabilize a bit, consider pushing your peak summer trip to September,” Menez said. “Prices aren’t as inflated and with kids back in school, airports are bound to be less crowded.”
In the meantime, opt to travel to places you can reach by car or train. Most Americans don’t have to venture too far to find stunning vistas, waterfront hotels, relaxing spas, delicious restaurants and countless activities to fill an itinerary.