If you’re planning to hit the road this holiday season, you’re not alone. Every year, 1 in every 3 Americans travel around Thanksgiving, Christmas, and/or New Year’s Eve. Many people travel to visit family. But others opt to plan a vacation because of time off work or to celebrate the holiday in a fun and unique way with family.

Whether you’ve traveled during the holidays in the past or not, you probably already know how busy it can get. From busy airports to travel delays caused by weather, traveling this time of year can be stressful. But don’t let that stress get in the way of enjoying a fun holiday trip. Keep reading to learn a few tips to help you maximize your vacation and minimize headaches.

1. Reserve Everything Ahead of Time

With so many people traveling this time of year, hotels, tour reservations, flights, and even airport parking lots fill up fast. This means that if you don’t reserve your plans ahead of time, you’ll likely end up disappointed. You may have to change your plans, overpay, or opt for lower quality hotels, the worst tour slots, or parking far, far away from the terminal instead.

As soon as you decide on the dates for your holiday travel, head to the web and start booking. You’ll want to book your flights or other travel plans first, then move on to other big-ticket reservations, like hotels or car rentals. Finally, plan your itinerary and book tours, bike rentals, and other activities accordingly.

According to experts, the best time to book your holiday flights is 6 weeks before your trip. But booking at least 3 weeks out will help you get the flight you want without overpaying too much. The worst time to book is 1 week or less ahead of your travel day.

2. Avoid Peak Travel Times if Possible

The days and weeks immediately surrounding the major Fall and Winter holidays are all busier than most other times of the year. But a few days, in particular, are sure to cause travel headaches. Of the 10 worst days of the year to travel, 3 of them fall during this time of year. If at all possible, try to avoid booking your flights or taking off on your road trip on the following days:

  • The day before Thanksgiving: With so many people heading to visit family, roads and airports are overflowing the day before Turkey Day.
  • Christmas: Like Thanksgiving, Christmas inspired plenty of visits to family. Add in snowstorms and delays and you definitely won’t be feeling any Christmas cheer if you travel on this day.
  • New Year’s Eve: This holiday packs a double-punch. Many people travel home after a holiday vacation on New Year’s Eve so that they can get back to work or school. Others opt to party and then make the poor choice of driving home, making the roads very dangerous on this day.

3. Get to the Airport Early

If you’re heading to the airport for your travels, leave home early. Busy cities are sure to have holiday traffic. Winter weather might mean you have to take it slow on wet, slick roads. 

While most days of the year it’s okay to get to the airport 2 hours before your flight, you’re going to want to plan for a bit extra time. Airline check-in desks and security will have lines. And even after you get to your gate, flight delays might leave you rushing to change your plans.

4. Make Room for Family Time

The last thing you want to do is allow your vacation to cause you to lose out on quality family time around the holidays. Whether you’re traveling with your spouse and kids or your whole extended family, make sure to plan for plenty of time together, relaxing or enjoying some holiday fun.

Making room for family time means more than just planning some downtime. You’ll also want to make sure that you have physical room for everyone. While a hotel stay might be the norm, if you’re traveling in a group, this won’t give you much space to sit, talk, or exchange gifts. A vacation rental will give you all of the comforts of home during the holidays. You can cook a family meal, relax in the living room, and exchange gifts without worrying about cramming into a tight space.

5. Pack for Everything

Winter weather, travel delays, changes of plans, and lengthy waits all demand a little pre-planning if you want to stay in a holiday mood. Much of that pre-planning involves your packing choices.

If you’re traveling somewhere cold, be sure to pack plenty of winter gear. Even if you only have a layover in a chilly state, it’s a good idea to pack one warm outfit. If your flight gets canceled and you have to stay the night, you’ll be glad to have warm clothes. 

Don’t forget to pack some entertainment in your carry-on. If you’re traveling with kids, some small games, tablets, books, or coloring books will help keep everyone happy and occupied during any delays. Some extra cash, additional clothes, and a small set of toiletries in your carry-on are also good ideas, just in case your trip gets unexpectedly extended.

6. Rethink Gifting

When you’re traveling around Christmas, it can be tempting to still try to re-create your normal holiday by packing wrapped gifts. But this can be a challenge. Gifts take up a lot of room in your luggage, which might mean paying extra for additional suitcases, and then having to lug them all around. Also, any time you check luggage, there’s a risk that your belongings will get lost or damaged in transit.

If you’re determined to do some gifting during your vacation, you can still do so. You might consider shipping your gifts to your destination ahead of time. Gift cards or the gift of experiences, like tickets to shows or hotel reservations, are also easy to pack and fun to give. You can also get creative and choose smaller gifts that you know will travel well.

7. Be Flexible

When winter weather strikes or delays occur, there’s nothing you can do to prevent them. But that doesn’t mean that your holiday is out of your control. Being flexible and adjusting to changes will help you still enjoy your visit or vacation, no matter what comes your way!

Planning Your Holiday Travel

The holidays can be a stressful time for traveling. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy a rewarding visit with family or a fun vacation this time of year. With these easy tips, you can be prepared and relaxed during your Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s travel plans.

If you’re still shopping for holiday gifts, check out this guide next. Winter hiking gear like coats and thermals are easy to buy and ship to your destination if you’re traveling but are sure to be a hit with your outdoor-loving friends and family.