Budget Travel had a great article in it's December 07 issue about surviving holiday flights. So many of these are great tips no matter when you go. My additional comments are in italics.
by Erik Torkells | December 2007/January 2008 issue
Path of least resistance After years of learning the hard way that the days on either side of Christmas are like something out of Halloween, I now fly home on December 25. Airports and planes are much less crowded. If you use a travel agent they can help guide you through the quietest travel times any time of the year.
Don't get stuck It's worth paying more to fly nonstop. The combination of crowds and bad weather is a tinderbox: One big storm and the system explodes. In winter, I wouldn't fly through Chicago, Denver, or Minneapolis if the airlines paid me. We fly non-stop whenever possible, which can be difficult out of Des Moines. If you do have a lay-over make sure it's not too short. I know that sounds counter-productive, but it will give the kids time to run off all that energy from sitting still for so long. Check out this post to see if the airport you are visiting has a children's area- many do.
Supply and demand Staying in a hotel over Christmas? Look for properties that tend to draw a business clientele. Occupancy rates drop on and around the holidays, making for deals. This is also a great tip for weekend travel.
In with the in crowd Join all loyalty clubs, even if you don't care about the points/miles. You'll get treated better, particularly if the hotel or car rental agency is overbooked. We belong to every club imaginable. It pays to belong.
A spot of one's own Airport parking lots are more likely to be full around Christmas and New Year's. Look into private parking lots located off airport premises (airportparkingreservations.com). They'll often guarantee a spot, they have free shuttles to and from the terminal, and they're cheaper. This is great if you don't have family that can help. Make sure you ask about security.
Losing the wait This is when airports get more people than they were built to handle. You can–and should–check in online up to 24 hours in advance. Just go to the carrier's website; you'll be walked through checking in and printing your boarding pass. If you're not checking bags, you'll be able to go straight to the gate. But it's a good idea even if you are checking bags, because many airlines have bag drops where, if you've checked in, you can hand over bags without waiting in the main line. Because you really don't want to wait in line if you don't have to…
Ease your burden I ship gifts ahead so that I don't have to check bags. Airlines and airports aren't handling bags as quickly or as reliably as they used to, and I don't like to wait after finally getting off the plane. We always ship items ahead, as I told you in this post. Diapers, wipes, toiletries, snacks… Anything we won't need until we arrive.
Time on your side Go to the airport earlier than normal. Airport security is a nightmare around the holidays because of the sheer number of people and the fact that many of them are infrequent, inexperienced fliers.
No secrets Wrap any gifts after you arrive. The TSA reserves the right to open anything.
Speaking of the TSA… The rules for carrying on liquids and gels are confusing and not uniformly enforced. You can bring as many containers as you want, provided they all hold three ounces or less and fit in a single one-quart Ziploc bag. Containers do not need to have the manufacturer's label. You're supposed to remove the Ziploc from your carry-on when you go through security, but I've never done it and never had a problem. In fact, I always have a four-ounce bottle of moisturizer and have yet to have a problem with that, either. Many people have encountered screeners who won't let their stuff go through. If your liquids and gels are valuable to you, follow the rules to a T. If not, you may find it not worth the trouble. We ran into this when flying in December 06. Security in Des Moines let us through with a ColdPak to keep the baby's bottle chilled. Dallas screeners took it away.
The secure zone If you want to bring water or other drinks, buy them once you've passed through airport security.
And now, boarding People are carrying on a ton of stuff, usually because they're bearing gifts. If you are, too, get on the plane as early as possible. Different airlines board passengers differently; sometimes, the same airline does it in different ways. Stand near the gate; you may even want to ask the agent how the boarding will happen. If the agents are boarding the plane by zone or group, wait until the group before yours is almost done, then enter the line. By the time you reach the front, your group will probably be called. And if not, what's the worst that can happen? They'll make you wait right near the gate. If you are using a car seat (which I suggest for kids under the age of 2) make sure to get on the plane first. Hauling that bulky thing through a full plane to the rear is a big hassle. If you are lucky enough to have two adults in your party get one adult on first with the seat and wait to board with the kids until the last minute.
Nice guys disembark last I wish we lived in a world where you were guaranteed overhead space near your seat. Until we do, I refuse to store my bag behind me, because I'll never get off the plane. Look ahead while you board: If the space above your seat is full, put your stuff as close to it as possible, and don't be afraid to take someone else's space. After all, someone took yours. And you can't see if someone messes with your stuff if it's behind you.
The pickup game The days of circling the arrivals area are thankfully coming to an end. More and more airports have “cell phone lots” where drivers can park for free and then wait for arriving passengers to call. Use them! Many of these lots will also have a phone number posted so you can check arrivals and delayed flight info.
Note: This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.