Starting today, Americans will engage in the county's annual combat ritual: Holiday Travel Season—a brutal tradition pitting travelers against the monolithic security and transportation apparatus in a race to their respective destinations. Believe it or not, it's possible to make it through with your dignity intact. It just takes a bit of planning.
The frustration mounts the moment you set foot on the airport curb. Bobbing and and weaving your way through the herds of flailing travelers, skycaps, and rental luggage carts is bad enough. But it's once you make it past the doors that the real challenge begins: Check-in.
Don't Check Out While You're Checking In
The Airlines for America trade organization estimates that some 25 million people will be flying this holiday season, and apparently most of them are trying to get onto your flight, right now. Avoid the traditional face-to-face check-in line if you can; they're typically much longer, move slower, and are filled with more large families (and their menageries of bags).
Use the self-service kiosks if at all possible, assuming you only have carry-on bags. Or, better yet, use your airline's online check-in option and print your boarding passes before you even arrive at the airport. The major airlines—American, Delta, United, JetBlue, and Southwest—all offer the service either at their websites or through their apps, as do a number of regional outfits like Frontier.
If you're unfortunate enough to have checked baggage, be prepared for the possibility that some or all of it will be smashed, rifled through, misdirected, or lost. Probably a combination thereof. Luckily there are a number of tools that can help minimize that blood pressure spike when you realize that your bags really aren't simply stuck down on the conveyor belt, they're halfway to Poughkeepsie.
Affix a GPS tracking tag like the Trakdot to know exactly where your gear is at all times. Also be sure to use TSA-approved locks—which open with a master key that only the TSA has—on your bags to keep hungry-eyed handlers out of your stuff. And if the airline still manages to bungle the return of your bags, remember first to breathe and then begin your mantra, "don't get mad, get results."
Sailing Through Security
It's been more than a decade since everybody's favorite transportation security administration came into existence, so if you don't know the routine for getting through security yet, allow us to explain. The procedure is simple: coat, belt, and shoes off, pockets empty, computer in one bin (or checkpoint-friendly laptop bag), everything else in another. Smile and be polite to the nice TSA officer as he irradiates you before grabbing your two buckets of stuff and finding an open seat to put all your gear back on. It's just that simple.
To make it even easier, apply for the TSA's Pre-check program. It's available at 97 airports throughout the country and is open to domestic travelers on Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, United, US Airways, and Virgin America. While it won't let you skip a security screening altogether, it'll get you through much faster—and without having to take off your shoes and belt, or remove your laptop from your bag.
And this should go without saying, but since people still try it, like, pretty much constantly, don't try to bring a gun on a plane. Or anything suspect, really. Figure out what you can and can't bring before you finish packing. You'll be surprised what the TSA will let you carry in your checked bags these days. Even though the list of banned carry-on items remains pretty much anything liquid or pointy, travelers are now allowed far more leniency in checked bags—basically as long as it isn't a dedicated explosive like black powder or a caustic chemical like bleach, you are good to go.
Surviving the Flight
Since the holidays are the traditional time for families to gather together, your trip will likely include healthy smattering of both small children and inebriated weirdos. While duct tape is clearly the best choice for the latter, you'll do well to simply drown out the former with your own in-flight entertainment.
Thankfully the FAA has come to its senses, and has begun allowing electronic devices to operate during takeoff and most landings on a carrier-by-carrier basis. Unfortunately, Gogo in-flight Wi-FI is still practically unusable , which means your streaming options are out. Instead, purchase or rent a few films and albums from Google Play or iTunes and download them to your device before you leave for the airport. Or if you already have a large digital media collection, pack a Sandisk Connect with as much Naruto it will hold and proceed to ignore your fellow passengers for as long as it takes. And to keep from fighting with your rowmates over valuable armrest real estate while you hold your beloved tab, use the Skyview to hold it for you.
Once your flight finally comes to its merciful end and you've successfully retrieved your baggage, congratulations! Use the tried and true jetlag cures—coffee, recovery time, and a little over the counter melatonin if you're truly desperate—to keep yourself from being even crankier than usual around the in-laws.