Monday-Morning Moving: 10 Ways To Deal With Crazy Holiday Airports

Photo credit: Andrey Larin via Unsplash.

By Sharyn Alden

Oh, the holidays! The good old memories of families gathering around the Yule log (video or otherwise), sharing sweets and goodies, gifts and cheer.

But getting to the log and the goodies and the gifts and the cheer? Ooof, what a process.

If you’re flying home for the holidays, you know. U.S. airlines are at record-breaking capacity, with the only empty seats on red-eyes and similarly distasteful flights. Not only are planes packed, but airports are overcrowded with loads and loads of impatient travelers.

And that’s on a good day during the holiday travel season. Throw in a heaping helping of delays and cancellations, and the frustrations really mount.

Years ago, when flights were delayed or cancelled, the airlines would quickly and efficiently find alternate flights for you. If you were lucky, there might be a flight leaving in 30 minutes. Today, with fewer flights on many routes, and these often sold out during the holidays, instead of waiting 30 minutes to find an alternate flight, you might have to wait 30 hours or more.

Even writing this, I cringe thinking of one memorable day where my airport moved from delaying all its flights to cancelling them to shutting down the entire airport – something that had never happened in its history. It was certainly no fun, but at least I wasn’t traveling over a time-sensitive holiday.

Anyone who has sat in an airport for hours due to weather or mechanical delays can empathize. If you aren’t inclined to wait it out till the skies clear, here are some options.

  1. Simultaneous strategies. If you’re in the queue waiting for a gate agent, multi-task. Don’t drop out of line, but pull out your cell phone and call your airline to try to rebook your flight. Sometimes, you’ll get faster attention on the phone than you will waiting in a long line with people who have the same rebooking goals.
  2. Try social media. Many airlines will react to social-media requests faster than a phone call. Try Twitter to see if there is an available seat on a flight to your arrival airport.
  3. Be flexible about your departure airport. Okay, you’re at Reagan National, but can you get a flight from Baltimore, Alexandria or another airport? It might be an awfully long and expensive Uber, but it’s almost certainly better than sacrificing Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve sitting in an airport terminal.
  4. Try a different arrival airport. Instead of waiting for a flight to open up to O’Hare, ask about alternative airports like Milwaukee or Madison, Wis.
  5. Have a backup plan. If your final destination is a couple hours’ drive from where you’re departing, consider taking a bus or train to get there. You won’t get there as fast as flying, but ground transportation may be a lot faster during the holidays than waiting for flights to resume.

If you aren’t going to get out of Dodge as planned, you may need to stay overnight in the airport. The days of airlines giving out vouchers for hotels are pretty much long gone.

Naturally, you can spring for a hotel room out of your own pocket. But you may not have that option over the holidays, since hotel space can evaporate once multiple flights are cancelled.

Actually, some travelers prefer to spend the night in the terminal. If they can get a very early flight the next morning, a sleepover in the terminal may be easier than going back and forth between the hotel and airport.

Here are five things to know/do if you decide to pull an all-nighter in your favorite air-transport palace:

  1. Pack like a backpacker. Holiday air travel translates to a large volume of passengers all wanting the same thing – fast, safe travel. When packing your bag at home, prepare for the possibility of being delayed and having to live in an airport for a while. Pack a lightweight blanket, washcloth, towel, toothbrush, and inflatable pillow.
  2. Be prepared to explain why you’re “staging” a sleepover. Chances are you’re not going to be kicked out of the airport, but you will need to show your boarding pass for an outbound flight to airport staff. Have it handy!
  3. Ask for advice. There is no one designated safe area for sleeping, but some areas in the terminal have better security than others. Ask airport security staff what they advise, then put down roots near a video camera and other travelers.
  4. Get creative when finding a safe sleeping area. If you hope to get some rest, you’re going to have to think creatively. Seek out a bench instead of a chair. Explore the airport and ask a café manager if you can snooze in one of the booths.
  5. Explore the possibility of buying a VIP lounge pass. A day/night lounge pass may cost you $50 or more, but you’ll have more comfortable accommodations to rest and relax.

Finally, because the holidays are made for travel problems, it’s the most important time of year to buy travel insurance. An overnight in an airport is no no one’s idea of a good time, but a paid overnight is always preferable to an unpaid one. And the travel assistance that comes with most plans? It’s a real lifesaver.

Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis. Contact her at