Stepping into Reagan National Airport last week came as a shock — and not just because of my 6:30 a.m. call time. The huge, snaking line for the TSA checkpoint took nearly an hour to pass; usually, it takes me a couple of minutes.
Before my flight home from Jackson, Wyo., the airport was so packed that people were sitting on the floor. The chairs by the gates and in the one restaurant there were full.
And it’s not just me. With travelers rushing to escape the cold grip of winter and kids off school, TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein says TSA has seen checkpoint traffic numbers rivaling the Sunday after Thanksgiving, one the busiest days of the year at airports.
In some cases, extreme weather and labor shortages have exacerbated the strain on airports, leading to cancellations that come with little warning and add thousands of dollars in unplanned expenses.
It’s all a recipe for stress and disruption. But swarmed airports don’t have to ruin your trip. Here are five tips for making the experience a little smoother.
Pack with the airport in mind
As you pack for your trip, don’t just think about what you need at your destination. Think about how each item might cost you time getting through the airport.
Start with a completely empty bag, checking every little pocket to make sure nothing is in there. You don’t want to get held up at security because you forgot you had a wine opener in your backpack.
Then make sure what you are packing is TSA-approved for checked or carry-on luggage. Remember the “3-1-1″ rule: Each passenger may carry liquids, gels and aerosols in travel-size containers that are 3.4 ounces or 100 milliliters in a one-quart bag. Farbstein encourages travelers to consult the “What Can I Bring?” page on TSA’s website or the MyTSA app.
Travel adviser James Ferrara, president of the InteleTravel agency, recommends packing light so you can take a carry-on, letting you skip waits at check-in and baggage claim. “You can walk off the plane and jump right into vacation mode,” he says.
If you’re really anxious about heading to a crowded airport, mental exercises can help you chill out. Mark Debus, manager of the behavioral health team at Sedgwick, has been preparing clients who are returning to the workforce — including a return to business travel — with visualization techniques.
Debus recommends picturing what the scene will be like ahead of time. Anticipate the huge lines, the angry travelers, the process of taking off your shoes and putting your belongings on the conveyor belt. The exercise can help you feel better prepared for the potential chaos.
Make extra time for every task
Even if you’re someone who lives for the thrill of cutting your arrival time dangerously close, consider giving yourself more time than usual to get to (and through) the airport.
Farbstein says travelers planning on parking at the airport should anticipate spending longer looking for a spot. If you’re renting a car, you should expect more of a wait while picking up and dropping off. You will probably encounter lines every step of the way, from check-in to the Starbucks by your gate.
“There’s going to be a line with the check-in counter because more people are traveling,” Farbstein says, adding that people are also traveling for a longer stretch, making them more likely to check bags.
Invest in line-cutting services and loyalty programs
Spring break travel brings a lot of families to the airport, and people trying to wrangle strollers, car seats and missing toys are bound to slow down security checkpoints.
“And then you’ve got people who have not traveled in maybe since the beginning of the pandemic, so they’re a little rusty,” Farbstein says. “It’s going to take them more time; they’re more likely to have something [in their carry-on] that’s prohibited.”
Ferrara says that besides getting to the airport early, getting a line-cutting service such as CLEAR or TSA PreCheck (or both!) is his best tip for travelers to survive hectic airports.
“CLEAR speeds up the travel-document check process, while TSA PreCheck expedites the physical screening process,” Ferrara says. “But having both services complement each other greatly, providing the quickest, surest route through the entire airport-security and screening experience.”
Ferrara also recommends you start building status with your favorite airline’s frequent-flier membership. Loyalty programs can eventually get you priority boarding, access to private lounges, upgraded seating and sometimes security benefits similar to CLEAR.
Use mobile apps to stay informed
Download your airline’s app to easily track your flight status and simplify check-in.
Drake Castañeda, a Delta spokesperson, says the Fly Delta app can alert you of flight changes in real-time; let you change your assigned seat; provide airport maps; show information on airport lounges; help you access in-flight WiFi; and send a push notification when it’s time to board.
Take a deep breath — or 10
Debus recommends adding an extra hour to the standard airport arrival time for your mental health. “That way, you have enough buffer after the checkpoint to then focus on relaxing before your flight,” he says.
When you get there, find a gate near yours that is less crowded and try Debus’s “10 breaths” technique. Start by finding a quiet place where you can sit upright. Put one hand over your belly button, close your eyes and inhale for three seconds while you focus on pushing your belly out. Hold your breath for three seconds. Exhale for three seconds. Repeat the exercise for 10 rounds.
“You’re doing diaphragm breathing rather than chest breathing,” Debus says. “Chest breathing will usually increase anxiety. Diaphragm breathing usually releases anxiety.”