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Traveling for Thanksgiving? Here are 5 tips from travel experts

With understaffing and mounting delays and cancellations, travel experts offer advice and recommendations for staying ahead of the travel chaos.
/ Source: TODAY

It's no secret that traveling this summer was more chaotic than in years past. But how will travel around Thanksgiving — one of the busiest flying seasons in the U.S. — look this year?

In the summer, air travel was hugely impacted by understaffing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, causing flight cancellations and delays along with lost baggage and an overall rocky journeying experience.

To ease the stress around traveling during this Thanksgiving season, TODAY spoke to two travel experts and consulted with travel site TripAdvisor to compile a list of tips and answer common questions about the less-than-friendly skies.

How will Thanksgiving travel look in 2022?

According to Tripadvisor's fall travel index, six out of 10 Americans plan to travel this season, despite the travel chaos, and 50% of people plan on traveling more this fall compared to last fall.

Melanie Lieberman, senior features editor at travel site The Points Guy, told TODAY that she is expecting a more chaotic travel season than normal, given the fact that airlines have already reduced their schedules and demand is high during the holiday season.

Bobby Laurie, a former flight attendant and co-host of travel show “The Jet Set,” pointed to a culmination of factors that he says has the potential to unfold in a disastrous way for travelers this Thanksgiving.

"What I'm really interested in watching is the convergence of COVID and the flu together without masks because that's something we haven't done yet," Laurie told TODAY, referencing how this holiday season will be the first winter and flu season that masks are no longer required on domestic flights.

"As people begin to call in sick, it's now a question of whether or not these airlines have enough staff to crew and man the plane," he said.

What time should I get to the airport?

Lieberman recommends arriving at the airport three hours before your flight to account for potentially long lines. But she also suggests taking extra measures to sidestep airport crowds.

"This is a really great time for travelers to ensure they are enrolled in programs that cut down on the time you need to spend at the airport and will make that travel process easier, so ensure that you are enrolled in TSA PreCheck ... or Clear," Lieberman said, referring to programs that allow travelers to skip long lines and have special exceptions at airport security, like not having to take your shoes off.

She also recommends checking if your credit card company allows access to an airport lounge, so you can arrive at the airport earlier and then spend time in the lounge.

Laurie also recommends arriving at the airport three hours before your flight, but he believes the long lines are the result of flyers anticipating them.

"Everyone goes super early, and then everyone's there for a 6 p.m. flight at 7 in the morning, and now you've got these lines that just continue on forever because everyone's paranoid," Laurie said.

To keep up to date with what airport lines might look like, Laurie suggests downloading the MyTSA app, where a special feature shows data from the Transportation Security Administration to check airport security wait times. FlightAware MiseryMap, dedicated to showing delays and cancelations in airports around the country, is another helpful tool.

What can I do to make the travel experience easier?

First and foremost, both experts emphasize the importance of flexibility and having a backup plan, because it's likely that your flying itinerary will not go perfectly smoothly.

Lieberman suggests flying out earlier in the week and later after Thanksgiving, given how short the holiday is, to give yourself a few days of buffer for getting where you need to be.

"One thing we've been recommending all summer long is taking the first flight out if you can, even if you're not an early bird," Lieberman said.

Casey Brogan, a consumer travel expert at Tripadvisor, told TODAY that the Wednesday before Thanksgiving will be the busiest day of travel. She recommends choosing your airports strategically.

"Airports in major hubs will be more crowded, (so) it’s a good time for travelers to take advantage of smaller regional airports whenever possible for a smoother experience with less delays and congestion," Brogan said.

Laurie added that some airlines have certain agreements with other airlines to rebook you should your flight get canceled.

"Not every airline has those agreements," Laurie said. "So in the back of your mind, have a backup plan in the event you are canceled and the next available flight isn't for three days, and at that point, it's already Thanksgiving."

How can I stay COVID-19 safe if there's no longer a mask mandate?

Masks are no longer mandated on domestic flights in the U.S., though some international flights may require masks through a country's specific COVID-19 requirements. But, Laurie said, masks are still recommended.

"It's not unusual anymore to board an airplane wearing a mask, whereas in 2019 if you did it, everyone would look at you thinking, 'Oh no, you're sick,'" he said. "Now, no one would even think a thing if you walk on the airplane wearing it, so why not do it to protect yourself?"

Additionally, with the flu season fast incoming, Laurie noted many people will be falling sick, and every airline is handling sick calls and positive COVID-19 cases differently.

To limit exposure and ease the travel process, Lieberman reiterated the importance of not traveling in the days immediately before and after the holiday, if possible, and instead trying to fly on less busy days earlier and later in the week.

How can I ease the travel process if I'm flying with children?

Lieberman recommends ensuring you have early boarding, whether that's part of the airline's policy or something that you have to pay for, because air travel will inevitably be more crowded this year.

"Flying on a less crowded day is definitely helpful," she emphasized. "(And) if you have a whole family traveling only with carry-ons, you want to make sure you have room for your bags in the overhead compartment ... so keeping your family together and getting early boarding is one way to cut down on the stress a little bit more."

Laurie recommends packing a little bit extra when traveling with children in the event that your journey hits a speed bump. He suggests looking into the airline's seating process, because some airlines will not necessarily seat families together just because they are on the same reservation.

"So long as there's a guardian for every child, there's no real requirement to fit you together if that's the fare you booked," Laurie said. "Make sure if you want to sit together, you spend the extra $15-$20 per ticket and ensure you have your seats together."

In all, Brogan summed up the travel experience in one concise tip: "Pack your patience, and recognize the airlines, hotels and restaurants on your vacation are doing their best to serve you despite continued labor and supply chain challenges."