With extra vacation days and the tradition of returning home—or at least heading to wherever your family’s home is now—the holidays are a popular time to travel. Of course, nearly everyone else thinks so, too, which means you’ll be faced with big crowds and higher prices. A little planning goes a long way in making this a trip to remember because of all the good times you had, not because of travel delays.
Lucky for you, we have tons of holiday tips and tricks for helping you get to your destination as quickly as possible and with all your gear—and sanity—still in your possession. From picking the best time to travel to navigating busy airports and being a friendly flier and a gracious guest, we’ve compiled the ultimate list of holiday travel tips for you.
So sit back, relax with some cocoa and holiday tunes, and read on!
Let’s Get Planning
- Pick the right time to travel: Sure, everyone wants to be together on the holiday, but our holiday travel tips begin with asking your family if they’re willing to celebrate on off-peak days so you don’t fly or drive with the masses. It could save you hundreds of dollars in flights alone—not to mention cheaper hotels and activities—and you won’t have to brave the crowds who are all leaving the day before and returning the day after Christmas, the New Year, or whatever holiday you plan to observe.
- Arrive early and leave late: If you have extra vacation days or the ability to work remotely, try to get to your destination a bit earlier. If you have kids, school breaks typically begin the day before, so one of our best holiday tips is to travel a few days before that if you can. And if you're traveling for Thanksgiving break in the United States, you can typically score cheaper travel on the Tuesday and Wednesday after the holiday. That's true for New Year’s Day around the world, too; waiting till Jan. 3 or 4 to return home will let you sail that vacation high a little longer for less cash.
- Fly midweek or on the actual holiday: Of course, if Jan. 3 is a Friday, that may not necessarily be true. Our list of the best holiday travel tips includes avoiding weekend flights if you can, as many travelers will plan their trips this way to maximize their days off of work. If your family has agreed to celebrate on a different day, traveling on a holiday may mean you’ll have fewer crowds to fight, especially later in the day. So sleep in, have a nice holiday breakfast, and then hit the road!
- This isn’t the time to be cheap: One of our top holiday travel tips is to pay attention to the airline you fly. You’ll want to choose an airline with traveler-friendly policies and great customer service that you can access quickly if your flight is delayed or canceled. That’s more likely to happen over the holiday season because (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) inclement weather may impact your flight, and higher travel demand may mean more overbooked flights.
- Be kind, rewind: As the old adage goes, “You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Kindness is an essential part of every holiday tips list (and it’s, frankly, good advice whenever you travel). It’s even more important to keep in mind when interacting with employees who are likely already stressed from overwork and missing time with their families. If something happens to put a kink in your travel plans, take a step back and a deep breath, and then politely ask for help. There’s a good chance that whatever happened isn’t a direct result of something that a particular employee did, and it’s just their job to clean up someone else’s mess.
- Accept that everything will take longer: Be prepared to spend more time at the airport over the holidays. Whether it’s a weather delay or simply too many travelers for too few workers to handle, our holiday tips include packing sudoku or crossword puzzles, a book, and loading games on your phone so you won’t be bored in line.
- Resistance is futile: Bear in mind that everywhere you go will be more crowded, and everything will cost more. It’s the law of supply and demand, and it happens every year, so you’ll be a lot happier if you plan for it and embrace the craziness.
- Choose your seat: Here’s a tip for traveling during the holidays that may cost more but is worth the extra money: pick your seat, even if you have to pay for the privilege. If you already have an assigned seat, you’re less likely to get booted from an overbooked flight.
- Arrive early: As we said above, everything will take longer, from finding a parking spot to getting through security, so getting to the airport earlier than you think you should have to is one of the best holiday travel tips when you want your trip to be less stressful.
- Stop and drop that wrap: If you’re flying during the holidays, don’t bust out the paper, tape, and bows at home. Never mind the fact that no beautiful bow will survive airplane turbulence; if airport security has to check your bag because something inside flags an alert, they may have to unwrap your gift to see what’s inside before you even get on the plane.
- It’s in the bag: Instead of trying to fit a roll of wrap in your carry on luggage or dealing with the creases of folded gift paper, our holiday tips include bringing gift bags from home for your gifts when you arrive at your destination. Gift bags and tissue paper lie flat nicely in the bottom of your pack, still look beautiful, and take less time to use than setting up a wrapping station when you arrive.
- Keep it personal: Try to pack any gifts in the travel daypack you're using as a personal item bag if they fit so you still have something to share at the gift exchange if your luggage gets lost. If they take up too much room, you can pack them in your carry on travel backpack, although overbooked holiday flights are more likely to run out of space in the overhead bin, so you may still have to check it at the gate if the flight is full.
- Ship it directly: Of course, since you’re likely shopping for holiday gifts online, why not have them shipped right to your destination? Along with saving room in your backpack, they’ll be there when you arrive. You can request gift wrap to keep the surprise or bring those gift bags we mentioned above to quickly get the job done when you arrive.
- Don’t check a bag: You know we’re all about one bag travel here at Pack Hacker, and the holidays are not the time to forget about our minimalist packing tips. If you check a bag and it gets lost or, more likely, delayed, you could be spending more time on the phone with customer service than you do visiting with Aunt Sally.
- Make a packing list: If you’re just throwing items willy-nilly into a bag, you’re nearly guaranteed to forget some travel essentials. So, one of our favorite holiday travel tips is to create a list of everything you need and stick to it! It’s easy with our online Packing List Tool. And, if you need help getting started, we have curated packing lists for nearly every type of trip.
- You might not need that: Whether you’re staying with family, at an Airbnb, or in a hotel, find out what’s available for you to use before you start to pack. For example, you can bring less clothing if there’s a washer and dryer available, and your mom may still have your favorite brand of shampoo in the shower, but you may want to bring some instant java if grandma isn’t a coffee fiend like you are. Checking into what’s available will help you bring only the essentials, and it’s one of the best holiday tips we can share.
- Pack for different weather: Of course, if you count on your friends and relations for extra gear, you may end up wearing your dad’s XXL sweatshirt when the temperature dips, so it’s best to be prepared with layers in your travel capsule wardrobe. That’s even more important if you’re celebrating the holidays in a touristy destination—you may not want to buy a new pair of shorts with “South Beach” stamped on the butt because you forgot to bring your own.
- Don’t forget to tip: The holiday tips continue with bringing along small bills for tipping. Showing your gratitude with some cash can go a long way in spreading goodwill to the hotel employees, cab drivers, and other servers you meet along the way if you’re traveling someplace where tipping is customary, like most of the United States.
- The right way to weather stalk: No matter where you travel, the weather can be inconsistent this time of year, so be sure to check the forecast before you pack. Don’t look too early, though, since some warmer destinations, like Florida, have climates that can change on a dime and seemingly don't settle into consistency until the last minute. Our holiday travel tips include packing a few days beforehand so you know exactly what you’ll need and what you can leave behind.
- Avoid popular holidays at your destination: When you’re looking to get some rest or searching for a new adventure, why not visit a country that’s not celebrating the same holiday that you are? It will potentially be cheaper and less crowded than places following the same calendar.
- Check your ride: Sure, Uncle Norm swears he can pick you up from the airport, no problem. But he could flake out the minute the snow starts to fly, so one of the best holiday travel tips entails making sure you have a backup transportation plan.
- Rent a car: While it costs more than relying on the generosity of friends and relations, you're probably better off renting a car or scoping out the ride-share options at your destination. Then, you can go out on a “grocery run” if you feel the need to escape the holiday chaos.
- Be flexible: Something will go wrong. There you go, that’s one of the best holiday travel tips we can give you. Knowing there’s a good chance that not everything will go according to plan and being ready to roll with the punches is the secret to a more serene holiday.
- Ask the experts: If you’re heading to somewhere you’ve never been, our holiday tips include asking for help before setting out. Maybe you have friends or family who can tell you what bag you should bring to the beach and what are the best gloves for texting on the ski slopes, but if not, Pack Hacker Pro is a community of fellow travelers who are always eager to help you get ready for your next trip, so join us!
- Plan for the unexpected: Whether someone in your travel party gets sick or you need to unexpectedly come home early, holiday travel insurance offers peace of mind that you won’t lose all of your money if you can’t make it on your trip.
- Say thanks with a gift: We don’t think that adage about houseguests and fish actually holds water, but the fact is that having people stay overnight is hard work. So sending flowers or a fruit basket—or, better yet, bringing something unique from your hometown—to your hosts to show your appreciation is one of the best holiday tips to ensure you get invited back next year.
- Decide whether the stress is worth it: Hopefully, now, you’re feeling better about traveling over the holidays, but if you’re not, you should decide if it’s right for you. It’s the most expensive time of the year to travel to many places, and while it can be a lot of fun to celebrate in a new location, you could also make your money go a lot further if you wait a few months to take off.
There’s No Present Like The Present
Packing For Holiday Travel
Holiday Grab Bag
However, if you keep all of our holiday travel tips in mind, you’re more likely to be happy heading out to visit family or explore a new destination, even with the additional crowds. Who knows? You could meet your new best travel friend as long as you pack your patience and remember that you’re heading out on vacation—this will be fun!