The busiest travel day of the year is guaranteed be smooth sailing for everyone, said nobody ever. While it's absolutely no surprise that statistics point to the weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas as most popular times to travel by road and air, experts also agree that other busy U.S. dates to keep in mind when planning trips include holidays like Easter, July 4th, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and New Year's Eve. Unsurprisingly, other high-traffic times are tied to warm weather and when students are on vacation, particularly Mardi Gras, spring break, and Fridays and weekends during the summer.
With all of this in mind, there's no reason to begrudgingly accept every single inconvenience that comes with hitting the road or boarding a flight during even the most chaotic travel days. Of course, it's totally expected to experience some level of stress, whether it be from waiting in long airport security lines, flight delays, packed train stations, or bumper-to-bumper traffic—but with some smart planning, it's possible to survive (and even enjoy) any strenuous travel season. Don't hit that "reserve" button just yet: Keep reading for the top ways to avoid potential frustrations due to booking flights, hotels, and rental cars during peak travel periods.
This may be a no-brainer, but procrastinating on booking your flight may mean shelling out hundreds of dollars more on your ticket, but you can easily avoid overspending by setting airfare alerts or downloading travel apps. As Google Flights insight engineer Matt Kayala reveals, prices increase the month of the holiday: For instance, Thanksgiving flights should be booked "by the end of October to get a better deal," he says.
The Friday and Wednesday prior and the Sunday after Thanksgiving tend to be the busiest days to fly, Kayala continues, so it's wise to choose alternate travel days if you prefer to avoid crowds. It's also key to plan ahead when it comes to other methods of traveling, as experts divulge on NPR. For example, road trippers should be sure to book car rentals or take care of vehicle maintenance (think oil changes, tire rotations, and brake checks) at least several weeks beforehand.
Don't Forget Accommodations
Whether you're flying or driving on the busiest travel day of the year, chances are you're going a need a place to kick up your feet and get some shut-eye, too. If you don't have the luxury of staying with family or friends once you arrive at your destination, then you'll also need to account for accommodations.
When it comes to finding hotels, travel expert and author Matt Kepnes writes that not all online booking websites are equal when it comes to saving the most dollars. "He found that one lesser-known site, TravelPony, "blew the competition out right out of the water" and offered "substantially cheaper" prices on three- and four-star hotels than major websites.
Even if you're already familiar with your destination's location, it's still worth researching hotels or Airbnbs before you reserve a room or home. Checking for any special holiday promotions, reading both the positive and negative reviews, and considering even the most minor details (like whether the room is smoke-free or not) will help you save money and avoid any potential hassles.
Extend Your Holiday
As stereotypical as it sounds, there's always a chance that going home for the holidays will involve interacting with that in-law who just can't help but rub everyone the wrong way. When bowing out of familial obligations isn't an option, extending your trip (and ditching packed airports on the day after Christmas) can be one way to relieve yourself of the stress that comes with holiday travel.
Play tourist in your hometown, or book a departing flight out of a less-frequented airport within road trip distance and use the mileage as an excuse to explore those roadside attractions on the way. Here's yet another idea: Plan your holiday visit as the first stop on your way to another dreamy vacation destination—or even an international getaway.
Check Your IDs
The next-worst thing to missing your flight? Being denied a boarding pass because of an expired passport or invalid form of ID—a travel headache that can easily be avoided with a little due diligence. As a result of the REAL ID act that was passed in 2005, the TSA and other federal agencies are no longer allowed to accept drivers licenses from these nine U.S. states as a form of identification.
If you're a resident of the affected states, you'll need to ensure that you have an alternate form of ID (like a permanent resident card, military ID, or passport) to pass airport security checkpoints with flying colors. Plan on jetting off to an international destination? If that's the case, be sure that your passports meets that country's validity window—otherwise, you'll need renew your passport, which could take at least four to six weeks to process.
Dress and Pack Right for the Flight
Planning a trip doesn't end at booking your flight and scheduling your vacation's itinerary: You'll need to navigate your way through airport security first, which also involves dressing and packing efficiently. One former TSA agent recommends leaving maxi dresses, bobby pins, and metal jewelry (like the Cartier Love bracelet, which requires a screwdriver to be removed) in your bags.
If you plan on bringing gifts aboard the plane, note that security may make you unwrap every package. Be warned that snow globes, gel-like substances, batteries, and half-empty toiletry bottles are among items that can be confiscated by security, so keep that in mind when you're packing your luggage to and from your destination.
Tell us: What are your top tips for surviving the busiest travel day of the year?