Updated: Nov 20
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Summer 2022 has been called the worst summer air travel season in memory. Record flight cancellations, delays, staffing shortages, and surging demand have created the kinds of air travel stories you almost don't believe. Almost.
Unfortunately, though much has been written about this summer of "revenge travel," air travel may not go back to normal anytime soon. Recent air travel woes have been largely attributed to staffing shortages, which will take time to ease as organizations from airlines to the TSA need to onboard, train, and build expertise among staff.
In addition, though the COVID-19 pandemic created short-term disruptions, long-term growth in global air travel points to a future with many, many, more people traveling by air.
In short, staffing shortages + long-term growth in demand signal that this turbulent summer air travel season might also be indicative of the future. Though surely disruptions may ease somewhat as other contributing factors are mitigated, the future of air travel may not be as smooth as we'd expect.
So what can we do about it? Keep reading for my top tips for making your air travel as smooth as possible, this summer and beyond.
My Top Tips For Making Your Air Travel As Smooth As Possible For This Summer And Beyond
1. Arrive Early When Possible
Sprinting through the terminal to be the last person on your flight might be exhilarating, but it's a much more dangerous prospect than it used to be. With record delays and cancellations and many flights completely full or overbooked, you may end up delayed for an extended period of time, even for days, if you miss your flight.
Plan to arrive at the airport early and to your destination well in advance of any major event. Flying in on the morning of that big meeting or a wedding should not be part of your travel plans unless it's absolutely unavoidable.
2. Leverage Trusted Traveler Programs
With record airport crowds, you may find yourself wasting hours standing in line waiting. Waiting to check in (which I'll address in a few points below), waiting to get through security, waiting to make it through immigration. I've seen people arrive at the airport the recommended two hours in advance of their domestic flights only to miss their plane because the security line was too long!
So how can you avoid those lines? There are a few options to help cut down on unnecessary waiting at US airports.
TSA PreCheck: TSA PreCheck is a trusted traveler program administered by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA). Once enrolled, travelers can access expedited security screening at most US airports. You'll see dedicated PreCheck lines at airports where travelers can typically make it through much faster as they don't have to remove their shoes or belt, take out their laptops, or remove light jackets.
Recently when I was flying out of Miami, having TSA PreCheck literally saved me at least an hour in the regular security line and was the reason I was able to make my flight. TSA PreCheck is open to US citizens and lawful permanent residents and has an $85 application fee for five years of eligibility.
Global Entry: Global Entry is similar to TSA PreCheck, but is a trusted traveler program operated by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Global Entry, after passing a background check and in-person interview, allows travelers to go through expedited screening to enter the US.
With Global Entry, I've gone from waiting for often an hour or more in the immigration hall upon re-entering the US, to quickly scanning and walking through the Global Entry line in five minutes or less. It has saved me countless hours and makes it easier to catch connecting flights when I'm returning to the US from a trip abroad. Global Entry has a $100 application fee and is valid for five years.
Clear: While TSA PreCheck and Global Entry are both run by government agencies, Clear is a traveler program offered by a private company. Clear operates at over 50 airports and allows members to quickly verify their identity at a biometric kiosk. Members are then escorted by a Clear employee to the next stage of security screening, skipping the part of the screening process where travelers have to wait to have their ID and ticket checked by a TSA agent. This can save time at the airport, but it's important to note that Clear is NOT available everywhere. Clear costs $189 per year.
If you have any plans to travel internationally at all in the next five years, I'd go for Global Entry if I were to choose just one program.
Yes, Global Entry can be more cumbersome because it can be hard to get an appointment to complete the mandatory interview. However, Global Entry also includes TSA PreCheck benefits as part of the program. Once you have Global Entry you will also have TSA PreCheck and save time in both security lines and going through immigration to enter the US. The combination is really a game changer for frequent international travelers! See the Maximize Credit Card Benefits section below for details on how to get Global Entry for free.
3. Get That Lounge Access
Gone are the glamourous days of air travel, at least for the vast majority of travelers on a budget just trying to get from place to place. In increasingly crowded airport terminals this translates into limited space, inadequate seating, rare electrical outlets to charge your devices, and often long lines for overpriced, underseasoned food. This is where lounge access comes in handy.
Think of an airport lounge as a little respite from the chaos of the airport. Typically, lounges offer seating with ample charging outlets, premium food and drinks (yes, usually including alcohol), and sometimes even showers, gyms, nap areas, and more. Especially when I've been stuck in an airport for an extended period of time dealing with flight delays, lounge access has been key for me! In those moments especially I can head to a lounge, have a quiet place to sit and regroup, save money on food and drink, and even shower and refresh!
Lounge access rules vary, but the most common way that you can get regular lounge access is by gaining status as a frequent flier on a specific airline or through access offered by some travel credit cards. In addition, some lounges allow you to purchase a day pass for entry, which may or may not be worth the expense to you depending on your circumstances.
For frequent travelers especially who want regular lounge access for comfort, productivity, and to save money on overpriced airport food and drink, see the Maximize Credit Card Benefits section below for details on how I get lounge access through my travel credit cards.
4. Maximize Travel Credit Card Benefits
Many travel credit cards offer valuable benefits that can make travel more comfortable! Some offer reimbursement for TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, or Clear, and many others also offer lounge access which can make your time in the airport more comfortable AND less costly (as you won't be tempted to buy overpriced snacks and drinks). For frequent travelers, I highly recommend finding a travel credit card or two that offers benefits to make your travel more comfortable. Analyze how and why you fly and what you're looking for to find the card(s) that work for you. The Points Guy is a good starting point to compare credit card benefits, sign-up offers, and value.
Here's how I use travel credit cards to make travel easier for myself
Pick A Home Airline & Maximize Benefits There
I'm a big fan of having a "home" airline and sticking to it (when reasonable) so I can get frequent flier status on that airline.
For example, United flies most of the routes I am likely to take out of the airport closest to my house and also operates numerous flights to the destinations I visit most often (in this case to the areas where my family lives). So when I'm traveling, as long as the price is reasonably close to other available tickets, I'll choose to fly United over other airlines. This helps me gain frequent flier status faster on United.
In addition to sticking with a "home" airline when possible, signing up for that airline's credit card can help you earn miles and gain status much faster. Airline credit cards also often come with hefty mileage sign-up bonuses that can be redeemed for free travel and perks like free checked bags for cardholders and guests.
In general, getting and using a credit card for the airline you fly most often can be a good way to maximize benefits. As always with a credit card, be sure to read the fine print as terms and perks vary by card and by airline.
But wait, beyond earning miles and getting free checked bags, why does frequent flier status on an airline matter? Once you reach a status level on an airline, that also comes with benefits like free upgrades. Business and first-class travel can be prohibitively expensive when purchased outright. But many airlines make frequent fliers eligible for free upgrades once they hit a certain status level, which can make travel much more comfortable and save thousands of dollars on ticket costs.
Case Study: How I Maximize Benefits With My United Club Infinite Card
United is my "home" airline and I use my United Club Infinite Card to maximize mileage earnings, get access to United's network of airport lounges, and because it pays for my Global Entry membership. I also get free checked bags when I fly United and purchase the ticket on my card.
In reality, this means I can arrive to the airport and drop off my free checked bags, breeze through security in the TSA PreCheck line (remember, precheck comes with Global Entry!), and head to the United lounge and grab a free bite to eat and something to drink as I wait for my flight. Then, when I'm on a return trip to the US I can skip the long line at immigration using the Global Entry lane.
In addition, by sticking with United as my "home" airline and using the card to maximize point earnings, I can typically earn enough miles in a year for a free ticket home to visit family in Hawaii for myself and my husband. That's a big cost savings for us as a family.
Finally, this system has earned me frequent flier status on United. Now, whenever I fly the airline I'm eligible for free upgrades which have made recent trips during this intense summer travel season much more comfortable!
If you fly United I highly recommend checking out their line of MileagePlus credit cards! Each has its own perks and some have an annual fee so be sure to read the fine print. All of the MileagePlus cards except for the Gateway card come with a credit for Global Entry, TSA PreCheck, or Nexus (which I didn't cover here as it's mostly relevant for US-Canada border crossings).
Get Lounge Access No Matter What Airline You Fly
Airport lounges are a welcome respite in crowded airports. Especially when I've been recently stranded by flight disruptions, lounge access has been key. Purchasing a day pass can add up very quickly. Typically a pass is around $60!
Credit card benefits are one of the ways you can ensure you have regular lounge access without having to pay each time you fly. However, unfortunately, if you have lounge access through a particular airline credit card you typically can only use those lounges when you're flying with that particular airline.
So what do you do when you're traveling on another airline?
Sometimes it's just not practical to fly your preferred airline and/or your "home" airline doesn't have any lounges along the route you're traveling. In that case, lounge access that's independent from the airline you are flying with is important.
Because of this issue, I use my American Express Platinum card to close the gap on lounge access. I'll be upfront, the Amex Platinum has a high annual fee at $695 a year. But the total perks, ranging from hotel credits to Walmart Plus credits and Uber cash, easily make up for the annual fee. Most importantly for me, with the card I can access over 1,400 lounges worldwide, many of which are not dependent on what airline I'm currently flying on. The American Express Platinum lounge network includes The Centurion Lounge Network, Priority Pass Select lounges, and more. Frequent travelers, especially international travelers, should check out the American Express Platinum Card and see if the perks make sense for them.
5. Use Airline Apps
Your flight has been canceled at the last moment. Over a hundred passengers at your gate are now scrambling to find alternative travel arrangements. Customer service lines stretch across the terminal and phone hold times are hours long. How can you update your itinerary quickly and make a plan?
Use the app for whatever airline you are flying! Airlines have invested heavily in improving mobile-friendly technology in recent years. Using an airline's app you can typically check in for your flight, get access to your boarding pass, select your seats, and make itinerary changes. It's a simple tip but utilizing airline apps can save you immense amounts of time and frustration.
6. Don't Check A Bag Unless You Have To
If you can, it's time to go carry-on only for travel. I know this isn't possible for everyone and it's definitely hard for me when I am traveling for work and packing filming equipment. But have you seen these mountains of lost baggage on the news?
Especially in an era with more flight disruptions than normal, with folks being rerouted left and right, checking a bag is just one more opportunity for something to go wrong. Try traveling with a large backpack and a rolling carry-on bag if you need to max out carry-on space. You can also use space saver bags to ensure you can fit more clothes into a carry-on!
7. Plan For Disruptions
What comfort items are an absolute must for you if delayed? What about if your flight is canceled and it takes you an extra five days to get home?
Hopefully, you never have to answer those questions. But you might.
At the very least, pack some personal comfort items in your carry-on when you fly. Have a toothbrush, toothpaste, change of underwear, some wet wipes, and an extra shirt. Trust me, if you get stuck for an extra twelve hours somewhere you'll be so glad for it and those items don't take up much space. Be sure to keep any medications you may need on your person as well, just in case it takes more time than expected to be reunited with your checked luggage.
Also, be sure to plan for entertainment and work if you get stuck. Though I travel with my Iaptop, I also always bring my Kindle as nothing compares to the battery life on the Kindle. That way if I'm stuck I know I have literally days of entertainment on my Kindle without needing a charge. I'm a big fan of the Kindle Paperwhite for easy on-the-eyes reading!
In addition, account for what you'd need for work in case of disruption. If you have an extra week after returning from a trip before you go back to work, you're probably fine and don't need to think about it! But if you have to be on email and responsive the day after you plan to get back from a flight, this might not be the trip to leave your laptop behind just in case of delays.
8. Avoid Tight Connections
In the age of unprecedented air travel disruptions, booking a ticket to save $30 that has a 25-minute layover is a RISK. Unless it's a necessity, avoid tight connections.
I usually aim for at least an hour for domestic connections and at least two hours for any flight where I'm re-entering the US, just in case.
9. BE KIND
Air travel can be hard on the best of days. Flight disruptions also tend to bring out the worst in people. Don't be an asshole. Don't take out your frustrations on those around you. Don't even think about yelling at someone in line or on the phone.
Take a deep breath. Even when it sucks being able to fly to get somewhere is an immense privilege. No matter how all-consuming it feels in the moment, there are probably numerous other passengers who are going through it right along with you. Try to remember you're not alone. As a frequent flier let me tell you, I have definitely cried in a few airports.
Those are just a few of my top tips to make air travel suck a little bit less! Drop any questions you have below, and don't worry, you got this.