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How to Keep Your Cool During Holiday Air Travel

Tips and tricks for staying calm during the busy season

spinner image two travelers looking at a tablet while sitting at an airport lounge
Pack patience and plenty of entertainment options when traveling over the holidays.
Getty Images

We’ve all been there. You arrive at the airport feeling joyful about going on a trip, but as soon as you spot the long lines, your blood pressure rises. With every phase of the trip, you become more agitated. And traveling during the holidays means double the crowds — which can double the stress.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. A little planning and mindfulness can help you stay calm on your journey.

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Before you arrive at the airport

“Be patient and be prepared for potentially long waits,” says Kristy Tolley, editor of The Points Guy, a travel advice website. “If you manage your expectations ahead of time, you can avoid becoming frustrated and short-tempered.”

Tolley also suggests booking the earliest possible flight of the day (which minimizes the risk of delays) and arriving at the airport extra early. That allows you to walk at your own pace, which is helpful because rushing can increase stress. More time also means more opportunities to enjoy some of the conveniences along the way such as massage chairs and yoga rooms.

spinner image a long line of travelers at the airport with a Christmas tree in the forefront
More travelers can mean longer lines at security checkpoints in the airport. 
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At the airport

To avoid lines at check-in for domestic travel, recommends Lisa Kulpa, cofounder of the Basic Travel Couple blog and a flight attendant for a major airline, download the airline app and use it to check in. Then use the kiosks to print baggage tags and drop off your bags.

For travelers who can afford it, TSA PreCheck can substantially reduce the time you wait in security lines domestically, while Global Entry gets you VIP treatment at U.S. customs when returning from overseas — and some credit cards will reimburse you for some of the fees.

Jackie Vernon-Thompson, an etiquette expert, advises travelers to keep the lines moving by having whatever you need to execute a transaction ready. “Have your ID in your hand. If you’re going to purchase something, have your credit card ready to swipe.”

And if the person on the other side of the counter is less than friendly, it helps to remember that the people working have many responsibilities and may have to deal with rude customers, Tolley says.

Vernon-Thompson advises leading with kindness. If you approach harried employees with impatience, you’re only going to make the situation worse.

“If you want to be extra nice, especially around the holidays, bring them little treats,” Kulpa says. (One idea: pieces of chocolate.)

You might want to pack some of those treats for yourself too. Winter travel means winter storms, which could equal delays and cancellations, so be prepared. Pack lots of snacks and download entertainment, books, podcasts and music. If you’re delayed, you may want to walk through the terminal to get your steps in. Many studies show that walking can help decrease stress. If you don’t have space to walk or if you have mobility issues, stretching also can help relieve tension. In short, lean into the downtime rather than fighting it.

If activity doesn’t do the trick for you, Kulpa suggests using a meditation app.

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On the plane

Boarding the flight can also induce stress, so go with the flow. Board according to your zone, but if you don’t need to store anything in the overhead bin, Tolley recommends boarding last to reduce the time you’re on the plane.

Once on board, Vernon-Thompson says to remember that you’re going to be with your fellow passengers for the duration, and you don’t want to create a hostile space.

If someone does something that annoys you, try to ignore it (noise-canceling headphones go a long way) or speak to them politely in a calm tone.

“People may get in your space but try to make a friend instead of an enemy,” Kulpa says.

At baggage claim

Once you arrive at your destination, instead of stressing over when your bags will come down the chute, use the time to walk around and stretch your legs. In the event of a lost bag, Vernon-Thompson says to remember that the individual you’re reporting the lost luggage to didn’t lose your bag so don’t take your frustration out on them. Staying calm and being polite will not only reduce your stress but will likely get you better service.

Tolley recommends putting tracking devices in your checked bags so if they’re lost or delayed you can share the location with the airline.

The best tip for keeping cool during holiday travel is this: Focus on the destination, not the stressful parts of the journey.

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