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7 Tips to Navigating America's Busiest Airports

When people say they love traveling, they generally mean they love being at their destination. Few people love the air travel experience — particularly at crowded airports. Here are tips to help you navigate even the busiest of U.S. airports.

1. Use alternative airports

Know the nation's busiest airports and look for nearby options. In terms of total passenger boardings, America's busiest are Dallas/Fort Worth, Denver, George Bush (Houston), Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta, JFK New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas McCarran, Chicago's O'Hare, Phoenix Sky Harbor and San Francisco. Others can be just as busy at certain times of the year. If at all possible, use an alternate or secondary airport — Love Field in Dallas, for instance, or Midway Airport in Chicago. Los Angeles has at least three other options: Bob Hope in Long Beach, John Wayne and Ontario.

2. Book flights strategically

The day and time of the flight matters, especially at busy airports. Early morning flights on Tuesday through Thursday are best. It's common sense, really. Leisure travelers tend to fly on or right before or after weekends — often trying to stretch their vacations by booking post-work-hours departures and later-in-the-day returns. Business travelers tend to fly on Monday, to get a start on the business week, and Friday, to get home for the weekend. Hence, early morning midweek flights are cheaper, less crowded and have better on-time departure records. Plus, with early flights, if there are delays or cancellations, you stand a better chance of being rebooked on a same-day flight.

Airport Security, Lines of People, Ropes, Tips to Navigating America's Busiest Airports

RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Great tips to navigate even the busiest of U.S. airports.

3. Know your airport

Prior to departure, study the layout on the airport's website. Find your terminal and plan a route directly to it. Determine if reaching your terminal requires a long walk or boarding a shuttle or tram. Research security-line wait times on the airport and Transportation Security Administration websites. Check the historical traffic patterns on roads to the airport at the time you're flying. Before heading to the airport, check on your departure gate (it might have changed) and on real-time traffic.

4. Rely on technology

You can prep for your flight online or with a smartphone. Check your flight's status and print out your boarding pass before leaving home, and sign up for email flight-status alerts. Airline apps not only provide alerts, but also let you download a digital boarding pass and opt for automatic rebooking on the next available flight if your original flight is canceled. Online technology and apps can also let you do things like book an airport parking space ahead of time — especially important during the holidays when lots fill up.

5. Arrive at the airport early — or earlier still

We've all been told to arrive at least an hour before domestic flights. The operative words here are "at least." If your airport and traffic research indicates you need to factor in still more time, do it. The worst that can happen when you arrive earlier than needed is you'll spend more time hanging out at the gate, where you can grab a bite, do some reading or do a little shopping. At some airports, you can even get a spa treatment. All this is far less stressful than the worst that can happen when you arrive late.

6. Pack with the wisdom of experience

Know your airline's carry-on size limits and checked-bag weight restrictions, and pack accordingly to avoid delays at check-in or boarding. Before arriving at the airport, put ID tags both inside and outside of your bags. Some savvy travelers say using only carry-on luggage is the best way to travel these days: You'll not only save money, but also time at both check-in and arrival.

7. Prepare for airport security

On the day of your flight, put jewelry, watches, belts and change in your carry-on before leaving home. Wear only one jacket or coat, as opposed to multiple layers, all of which have to come off at security. Wear slip-on shoes or boots with zippers so you can get them off quickly. Head to security ASAP, with your clear, plastic 3-1-1 toiletries kit and your laptop or tablet computer at the ready to put into bins (remember that digital devices need their own bins) and your identification and boarding pass in hand. If we all were prepared at security, the lines would move faster — even at the busiest airports.

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