Best Holiday Travel Tips For Navigating a Busy Airport

Brian Fischer
Oct 31, 2018 · 15 min read
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Image for post


It’s that time of the year again folks — the holiday travel season. A time ridden with inclement weather, first time travelers, screaming children, and trying to get along with the other side of the family. For some, it’s an easy 10 minute car ride to see your loved ones on the other side of town. For others, it’s a day long journey of flights, Ubers, and finding the closest fast-food joint with options that resemble a semi-health conscious choice.

Aren’t the holidays just wonderful? Maybe I exaggerated a bit, but some people really do have travel stories that would rival even the best Stephen King plot. Consider yourself blessed if all you have is a short car ride, as for all those going through the airport, here’s a lot of information that may make your journey a bit easier.

Regulations and Procedures to Remember

For first time travelers, or those that only travel for the holidays, there are some rules you will want to know or at least brush up your knowledge on them.

This applies to carry-on bags only. You are allowed up to 3 individual containers, that are 3.4oz (100ml) or smaller that fit in 1 quart-sized resealable bag. These may go in your carry and through checkpoint security. This applies to liquids, aerosols, gels, creams, and pastes.

TSA 3-1-1 Rule Graphic
TSA 3-1-1 Rule Graphic


Any container larger than 3.4oz (100ml), regardless of the amount inside of them, must go in a checked bag.

Exemptions to this rule are for medically necessary liquids, medications, or creams, which in most cases will usually be allowed in your carry-on. Just be sure to bring them in their marked prescription container. Additionally, formula, breast milk, or juice needed for infant nourishment is also typically exempt. Check out this link for medications, and this link for child nourishment for more information.

TSA Approved Lock Example
TSA Approved Lock Example

TSA-Approved locks are marked by the red square, like the one seen on this lock. | Source:

As you probably know, TSA screens all bags and its contents as you’re going through the checkpoint and when your bag gets checked in. In some instances, these screenings alert TSA a manual check may need to be done. Any bag is subject to being searched and if you have a non-TSA-approved lock, it will have to be cut off.

Using a lock is a good idea to help secure your belongings, but just be sure to use a TSA-approved lock. These locks can be opened without knowing the combination/having the consumer key, as TSA has a universal master key that allows them to open it without having to break it.

I’m speaking more from personal experiences and what’s realistically going to happen, rather than what TSA says, in this section. Remember that you are being watched from the second you enter airport property, and potentially prior to that as well. At any time you may be searched as part of a security measure, but it will most likely happen while approaching the checkpoint, or during the checkpoint.

Your hands may be dusted for bomb-making materials (so don’t go to the shooting range before the airport), you may be patted down after going through the scanner, and you may be further inspected, especially if you’re traveling alone on a 1-way flight and fit a specific demographic.

First, and foremost, if you do get searched or questioned more than what looks like everyone else is, don’t get offended, and don’t take it personally. They’re just doing their job.

If you’re a 40-year-old white male, traveling with your wife and 2 young kids, you’re probably not going to get stopped. However, if you’re a young 20-something male, of some foreign descent, and are flying with a 1-way ticket, you’re probably going to get stopped.

It’s happened to me several times. Yeah it might be unjustified or seem unfair, but life isn’t fair and rarely will it ever be.

Tyler Fridley Brian Fischer Arizona
Tyler Fridley Brian Fischer Arizona

The guy on the right does look super suspicious, I’d stop him too…

As mentioned earlier, when going through a checkpoint, you will have to go through the full body scanner. Don’t get self-conscious; all it checks is to see if there is anything around your body that you’re trying to hide. It’s very good at finding these types of things, so don’t try to hide anything and remove everything from your pockets before getting in it.

Just another quick story, there’s a pair of golf shorts that I used to always wear when traveling. They had a side pocket in an odd spot, for the scorecard. For whatever reason, this pocket always set off the scanner and I always received a quick pat down to make sure there was nothing in there.

Carry-on luggage is limited to a certain size, however that’s typically up to the airline and the employees scanning you through the gate. Even if your luggage does fit, according to the specs online, the gate attendant has the final say.

I’ve never had a problem carrying your standard size duffel bag, or with any of the luggage on this list. These are all generally well-known luggage brands and most flight crews use TravelPro as their own carry-on, so there’s never a problem with any of these bags.

Related Article: Best Carry-On Luggage for Domestic Travel

For your carry-on luggage, you generally won’t have to worry about a weight limit, unless you’re carrying a bag of bricks. Seriously, if you’re just packing clothes, don’t even worry about it.

My best advice for getting through the TSA checkpoint breaks down into 3 key points.

1. Get there early

2. Wear comfortable clothes.

3. Have everything ‘checkpoint ready’.

It’s really that simple. Do these 3 things and you won’t have to worry about missing your flight, getting stuck in an obnoxiously long line, etc.

Getting there early is pretty self-explanatory, but how early? The rule of thumb is generally 2 hours for a domestic flight, and 3 hours for an international flight. BUT — that’s for the rest of the year, when there’s not an entire neighborhood trying to get through 2 lines. My advice is to add an extra hour, or just as early as possible. This is the busiest time of the year and the closer you get to Thanksgiving or Christmas, the longer it’s going to take. Get. There. Early.

Apart from just comfortable clothes in general, wear shoes that are easily removable and avoid a belt, hat, or any accessories. Keep it simple — shorts, t shirt and shoes. For me as a 20-something year old male, I travel in workout shorts, a t-shirt, and a pair of shoes — without the laces tied. Not like with the strings going everywhere, but really loose so they just slip on and off. I do this any time I’m wearing them casually, but the extra benefit at the airport is I can remove them and get them back on quickly.

Wilmington International Airport
Wilmington International Airport

You’ll be lucky if you see an airport checkpoint this empty. | Source:

To me, ‘checkpoint ready’ means that everything that has to be removed, is ready to be removed quickly (like my shoes), and if for some reason my bag does need to be searched, the likely culprit is sitting on top, aka electronics. Luckily my backpack allows for me to easily remove laptop, but all other electronics that are “bigger than a cellphone” as I’m always told, need to also be removed.

So if you plan on bringing a digital camera or any other electronics, pack them where they can easily be removed when going through security.

Space Saving Tips

These things are lifesaver for travel, moving, general storage and more. You can pick them up at harbor freight or on Amazon for less than $10. Some are vacuum seal, while others you can roll to remove the air. These are great if you plan on doing some shopping while on vacation too.

If you have an extra suitcase and don’t mind checking a bag, pack all of your clothes inside the smaller one and then place carry on that in the larger one. That way on your way back, you can take out the carry on and pack the larger one to be checked with all of the extra items.

This works well especially if you want to bring items that may not be easy to get through security, are difficult to lug around, or just aren’t worth the hassle. Golf clubs are a good example of this, but if you plan on packing a lot of clothes you won’t wear while traveling, $15 to ship them to your destination is easier and cheaper than checking a bag in.

Best Travel Products

Best Carry-on Luggage — Domestic Travel

Best Carry-on Luggage — International Travel

High Power Charging Block

Portable Power Bank

Power Strip

Standard Travel Pillow

TRTL Travel Pillow

Ostrich Light Travel Pillow

Smart Luggage Tag

Storage Cubes

Space Saver Bags

Velcro Straps

Time Saving Tips

I can’t promise how well these tips will work during the holidays, but they’re worth giving a shot.

Look for the guy in a suit and avoid the couple that has 3 kids trailing behind all on those stupid child leashes. You know exactly who I’m talking about because one kid is going to get scared of the scanner, the other will try messing with the x-ray machine, and the last one is getting dragged along the floor since he doesn’t want to walk.

Stupid child leash example
Stupid child leash example

Seriously, if you’re a parent with this, you look ridiculous. | Source: Jim Simonson

Also, when looking for shortest line, you’ll be better off going towards your left. People have a natural tendency to go right when given 2 directions, so you might find there are less people in far-left lanes than the right. Again, look for the business travelers, since they know the drill.

As mentioned earlier, travel as light as possible with what you wear. Wear shoes that are easily removable, have your electronics ‘checkpoint’ ready, and avoid wearing a belt or jacket if possible.

This is a great tip, especially if you have kids. Keep all of your in-flight essentials in one place, like a front pocket. Personally, I keep my wallet, portable phone charger, boarding pass (also on my phone), snacks, and any items I might want to access during the flight in the front pocket of my backpack. For kids, it’s a good idea to pack wet wipes, tissues, pacifiers, etc.

TSA Precheck is a program that allows you to go through the “pre-approved” line at checkpoint. TSA PreCheck is an expedited security program that allows you to go through the checkpoint without removing shoes, liquids/gels from your carry on, laptop, jacket, or belt. Not to mention you probably won’t get stuck behind family with the unruly children.

You will have to apply online and then do a 10-minute in person appointment that involves a background check and fingerprinting. The cost is $85 per person and is valid for 5 years. Some major credit cards will reimburse this for free.

It should go without saying, but the easiest way to avoid missing a flight or having to rush to your terminal is to get there early. The closer it gets to the holidays, the more time you will want to give to yourself. Again, the rule of thumb for domestic flights is 2 hours before boarding, and 3 hours for international flights. I would add an hour during the holidays just to be extra safe.


No screen on the seat in front of you? No problem save your neck and throw a Ziploc bag in your carry on. Place your phone in the bag and pinch the bag between the fold out table and locking mechanism for makeshift screen.

If you bring a reusable water bottle it may get confiscated at the checkpoint. Yes TSA has said you can bring an empty, reusable one, but I’ve watched coworkers get theirs confiscated by TSA for whatever reason. Dumb, I know, but a plastic one will get the job done just fine and you can crush it if need be to save space.

Everyone hates tangled cords. If you haven’t figured out a good way to keep them organized, a little twist tie, binder clip, or small piece of velcro can help you out.

My runner and workout friends will appreciate this one. Pack your workout shoes, or any shoes that may get dirty, in a grocery or trash bag to separate them from the rest of the clothes in your suitcase.

Hate airplane food? It’ll cost you a bit more, but either eat at one of restaurants before your flight boards or get an order to-go to bring on the plane. Just don’t be that jerk that has to get the fishiest smelling dish and stink up the plane.

Another important note, if you have a special dietary need (ex. Vegan), specify that when ordering your tickets online. Don’t tell your flight attendant when you’re already on the plane, they may not have anything available.

If you need a little extra space, consider getting a shopping bag from one of the stores in the airport terminal. While some gate employees may say something, most won’t, at least with what I’ve seen. They’ll just think it’s just some snacks you purchased and at the most you may be asked to place it in your personal item.

I’m one of those people that will take all the little freebies that comes in a hotel room, soaps, shampoos, conditioner, hand towels, pillows, the TV, etc. Okay I’m just kidding with the pillows, but seriously, the soaps and shampoos come in handy, as well as the bottles themselves. If you don’t like the shampoo in the bottle, just empty it out and refill it with your preferred brand.

Keeping Track of Your Luggage (and kids)

A simple item, well worth the investment and will probably work better than any of the expensive trackers. I wrote an article on smart luggage tags here.

Useful if you want to locate your checked luggage at the carousel a little faster. These are mainly used for household items like keys or a purse and connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth. I’d like to make a recommendation — don’t get a Tile and do your research. Once the battery dies, the thing is useless and you have to purchase another one. It might worth checking out Cube instead.

Simple but effective. A reusable child safety ID bracelet with your contact info inside. Less than $10 and it makes it easy for someone security or whoever to get in contact with you if you and your child get separated.

Just don’t do it. Another product I recommend against, and it’s one of the top results for “luggage tracker” on Amazon. I explain it in this video below — but their system is basically defunct and they’ve never bothered to update it.

For Women

I don’t know a whole lot about tips for women, since I’m a guy, but I saw these online and thought they’d be worth sharing.

Since your nail polish is susceptible to getting scratched up, blah blah recommends using a lighter shade since it’s less likely to show vs. a bolder color like red.

I’m not sure how much money your average women spends on makeup, but I’d bet it’s somewhere close to how much money I spend on my hobbies like guns or videography. If that’s the case, those cremes, foundations, and whatever else I’m sure get expensive and they don’t make travel size versions of these. So, to travel with smaller amounts, use a contact lens case to bring just enough for your trip.

Best apps to have for Holiday Travel

If you have a smartphone, download your airline’s app and put your boarding pass on it.

Funny story, during my first trip for work, I damn near lost my paper boarding go through security. They told me to empty out all my pockets and while rushing through to not hold up the people behind me, I left my boarding pass in the tray. Panicked, I went back to the checkpoint and luckily a very nice TSA employee was able to find it. That was the first and last time I didn’t put my boarding pass on my phone.

The second reason for this is if your flight does get delayed/cancelled, it will allow you reschedule and switch flights quickly. While travelling to Phoenix, I ended up getting stuck in Dallas Fort Worth. Flight was delayed by 4 hours already and it didn’t look like we were going anywhere. Lo and behold I was able to see the next flight after ours out of Dallas to Phoenix was also cancelled, so I was prepared to set up camp for the night.

Luckily, American Airlines did put me in a hotel, for about 6 hours before I had to be back for the flight leaving that morning. Funny enough, the same thing happened on the way back and I was able to quickly reroute my trip from Phoenix to Chicago to Evansville, rather than Phoenix to Dallas to Evansville. I love traveling….

If your flight gets delayed or cancelled and the airline won’t put you in a hotel, it’s your choice whether you want to sleep at the airport or in a bed. This app will help you find some good, last-minute deals so your wallet won’t be hurting as bad.

Some families do interesting things during the holidays. Some might go skiing, some might go surfing, and who knows what everyone else does. Packing for these types of activities is a little bit more difficult to do, so PackPoint helps to alleviate that struggle.

Is your bladder the size of a pea? This app is for you. It’ll help you locate the nearest bathroom and give you a rating of its cleanliness. Clean = Sit! Dirty = Squat!

If you’ve never used Uber or Lyft, it’s time to get in the 21st century. Download it now and take one to your local Walmart. Trust me, it’s revolutionary, and breaks every rule your parents ever said about not getting into cars with strangers.

Great for bigger cities, this app will give you a breakdown of the all the public transportation, their routes and the fastest way to get to your destination.

Traveling internationally? This app makes it easy to scan over something like a stop sign and see what it says in your native language.

This app is authorized by the U.S. Customs and Board Protection and allows you to setup a profile that can allow you to quickly move through the paperwork necessary to allow you back in the United States. Check it out in the app store, or see their website here.

Use it every time you have to go #2. Keep track of every location you’ve said a prayer to the porcelain god and jot dot your thoughts in the app’s notes. Who knows, you might have a million dollar idea just waiting to get written down.

General Tips for Travel

I’ve seen some sites recommend doing this to save space. Don’t do this, for one some meds to can react negatively with others, causing them to melt or otherwise become unusable. Secondly, you’re probably going to get stuck at the security checkpoint since they have no idea what your meds are even if it’s just advil and aspirin. Keep your meds in their marked containers!

Self-explanatory here, parking fees can get expensive. You’re better off getting a friend, relative, or Uber to the airport to save on cash .

Some cards block certain states because they’re sources of high fraud. Be sure to call your bank before leaving and let them know you will be traveling and where your card needs to be ‘unlocked’. Be sure to include any states where you might have a layover too.

If for some reason your bag gets lost and the tag on the outside gets lost, employees may search the inside for contact info. If they find your itinerary with your contact info, the likelihood of getting your luggage back increases dramatically.

Originally published at Brian M. Fischer.

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