Ask a Pilot with Spencer: 6 Pilot Tips for Surviving the Holiday Travel Rush

Pilot Spencer Marker in the cockpit

In our Ask a Pilot series, pilot Spencer Marker answers one of your aviation-related questions each week. See past installments here and submit your own to whitney@johnnyjet.com.

The “question”

To most folks, the joy of the holiday season means spending quality time with family and friends. However, for many people, the holidays also mean trudging to the airport and flying to destinations near and far. Estimates predict over 38 million passengers will fly the skies this season. For travelers, this means crowded terminals, long security lines and added stress. Following these tips can make your holiday travels more bearable!

The “answer” (or 6 Pilot Tips for Surviving the Holiday Travel Rush)

1. Come early
One of the biggest keys to successfully navigating the holiday travel crowds is getting to the airport early. How early? At least an hour or two before you normally would. Car parking can be crowded and security lines long, so allow yourself plenty of time. An extra hour or two sitting in the terminal after arriving early is a much better alternative to being stuck in a TSA line at departure time.

2. Plan longer connections
Busier passenger terminals also mean busier airports. To carry many millions of holiday travelers, airlines add extra flights to their schedules. This means an already busy airport can become even more jammed. Things like gate availability and air traffic congestion can cause delays, and bad weather can compound these issues. So if you need to connect, ensure you allow plenty of time. Look at your itinerary. If you connect through a big hub such as Atlanta, Chicago or New York, allow at least an hour and a half. I have personally seen passengers miss connections scheduled with 45 minutes at airports like these. Plus, with airplanes filled with holiday travelers and empty seats rare, rebooking after a missed connection isn’t an easy proposition.

3. Bring what you need
As most travel sites suggest, pack a carry-on only if at all possible. However, leaving home with a family doesn’t always make this possible. So if you do end up checking a bag, take out everything you might need and keep it with you. This includes things like medications, phone chargers and diapers. Anything you might need during the course of a day. Also include items needed in case there is a delay or missed connection. I have had personal experience with a passenger that left a diaper bag in their gate-checked baggage. Since the airlines do not carry diapers, the result was a very frustrated mom.

4. Pack snacks or make time to eat
One of the more unfortunate changes in the airline industry over the last decade is the disappearance of free meals in economy. So, while you won’t necessarily expect a meal on your next flight, making sure you and your family are properly fed is still very important. Flight crews regularly deal with medical issues in-flight caused by low blood sugar. (We sometimes say orange juice is the best medicine we have on the plane!) And in severe cases, we will divert the airplane to ensure that passenger gets the medical attention they need. So take the time to pack snacks (make sure they are TSA-friendly) for the family or grab a bite to eat at the airport.

Tip: If you’re hunting for good airport eats, check out locations where there are lots of airport staff eating. Since they are in the airport day after day, their patronage is a good indication of the quality of the restaurant.

5. Have flight information at hand
Having electronic boarding passes and itineraries on your mobile devices is great. However, there are times when your phone doesn’t have service or dies or the Wi-Fi doesn’t work properly. For me, the times when I need my phone to work properly are exactly the times when it doesn’t. So when I travel, I always carry a paper copy of my itinerary, rental car reservations and other “gotta-have-it” information. Usually I don’t need it, but it’s there just in case.

6. Read the monitor
When you check in, airlines will post gate assignment numbers on your boarding passes. Many times I have seen passengers get flustered when they go to the gate on their boarding passes, only to see that the gate has changed. Since airports are very complex systems, often times an airplane’s gate assignment will change based on availability to keep the operation running smoothly. So to avoid this frustration, simply look at the departure board when you arrive at the airport. The gates posted here are updated by the airline and reflect the most up-to-date information.

So while we are ramping up for the holidays, following these simple tips will help you and your family navigate this hectic travel season. Do you have any holiday travel tips? Post them in the comments below!  

And if anyone has a burning aviation question or if there’s something you’d like cleared up, drop us a line at Whitney@johnnyjet.com to get your question featured in an upcoming “Ask a Pilot” column.

Tailwinds,

—Spencer

Spencer Marker

About the Author

Spencer Marker
From a young age, Spencer has been fascinated by aviation. And as his aviation career took off, that passion has turned into a love for all things travel. Adventurous and always taking the road less traveled, he seeks travel that changes his perception of the world. Highlights from his journey include visiting Chernobyl in the Ukraine, skydiving in Switzerland, and SCUBA diving in Colombia. Spencer is currently a pilot for a major airline and resides in Redondo Beach, CA.

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