Ticketing agents, baggage claim workers, TSA security personnel… I went to the airport to ask them for their top travel tips this season, and they all said the same, blaringly obvious thing: give yourself plenty of time.
Security lines are busiest between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m… especially in airports that serve both domestic and international flights. So, during the holidays, give yourself two hours. Maybe even three if you’re traveling on an afternoon flight.
Here are some other travel tips I picked up from a few ticketing agents at Reagan National Airport here in D.C.:
** 1. Find the smaller line. Some airports have more than one security checkpoint… and usually, one is more backed-up than the other. If you get to the airport and the line through security is really long, ask an airport employee if there’s another one. You might have to walk across the airport to get to it… but, if your wait is long enough, it could be worth it.
** 2. Follow a business traveler. Another way to scope out hidden check-in stations and smaller lines is to watch where the guys and gals wearing business suits go. One woman I met at the airport said she was stuck in a long check-in line when she noticed a business man behind her get out of line and walk off. She followed him and watched as he checked himself into his flight from a kiosk downstairs with no line at all. She followed suit (no pun intended) and, in less than five minutes, she was all checked in and moved on to queue at the security line, while everyone else in her original lined hadn’t budged an inch.
** 3. Virtually “cut” in line with your cell phone. If your flight is canceled or delayed, and you have to rebook, stand in line with everyone else… but get out your cell phone and call the airline at the same time. Sometimes you can rebook on the phone before you reach the front of the line. Just step out of line once you get confirmation that your flight has been rebooked.
** 4. Double-check your connecting airport. You’d be surprised how many people get to the check-in counter and don’t know which city they’re connecting in, much less which airport. If you’re catching a connecting flight in a big city, make sure you’re flying into and out of the same airport, or plan enough time to get from one to the other.
One United ticketing agent said she gets at least 40 people a day trying to check in at Reagan National Airport when their flight’s leaving out of Dulles International, across town.
** 5. Beware of code shares. More and more airlines are doing code shares these days. What that means is that you buy your ticket through one airline, but fly with a different one. Read your ticket carefully. And look for the words “operated by.” If you bought your ticket through Delta, but it says “Operated by: Alaska Airlines,” then you’ll need to check in at the Alaska counter. Every day, people miss their flights because they didn’t see those two words on their tickets and stood in the wrong check-in line.
** 6. Volunteer to get bumped and collect a free flight voucher. The holidays are prime territory for overbooked flights. If you’re flexible and your flight is overbooked, consider volunteering to take a later flight. You could receive coupons, meal vouchers, hotel stays, and even free round-trip flights for your trouble.
According to airport experts, you’ll be more likely to get bumped if you fly during the busiest times for your destination. For example, when flying to business destinations, try booking on Monday mornings or Friday evenings. Touristy destination tickets are more likely to overbook on Friday and Saturday.
Then, volunteer early. Most gate agents know about two hours ahead whether they’ll need volunteers or not.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]