Two and a half years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re still feeling its effects on the travel industry in big ways.
This summer has been one of the most frustrating periods, as travelers have had to navigate canceled flights, lost luggage, escalating prices and a general sense of chaos. But will this trend persist into the holiday season?
Below, experts share their predictions for holiday travel this year ― as well as advice for keeping the stress to a minimum.
Even more people will travel for the holidays this year.
“While I still think 2022 holiday season travel numbers will lag behind 2019, they will be well above 2021 and 2020 totals,” Phil Dengler, co-founder of The Vacationer, told HuffPost. “The majority of COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, which really puts the virus out of a lot of people’s minds when they consider traveling. On most days, TSA checkpoint numbers are only slightly behind the equivalent day from 2019.”
There was massive demand for travel this summer, and experts expect it to continue into the holiday season ― or, at least, to be greater than in 2021.
“The past two holiday seasons were surprisingly robust for being solidly in pandemic times, but one problem that prohibited even more families from traveling was there was still no vaccine for 5 and under,” said travel host Samantha Brown. “We now have that vaccine, so families with younger children will feel it’s safer to fly.”
Another difference between last year’s holiday season and the upcoming one is awareness of the COVID-19 omicron variant ― and the recently authorized booster shots aimed at protecting against it.
“Last year in early December, omicron spread and a lot of people changed their travel plans,” said Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy. “Barring any unforeseen circumstances or new variants, people are feeling comfortable traveling again and the world has reopened dramatically since last year.”
Because of this, travel issues will inevitably persist.
“Unfortunately, the demand this summer exceeded the supply of pilots, so cancellations and delays were common and frustrating for millions of Americans,” Dengler said. “I think that demand is going to continue into this year’s holiday travel season, which is going to cause more cancellations and delays around Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
Dengler predicted that 2022 holiday cancellations will stem more from a lack of pilots and other staff than from COVID-related sick calls, as was the case in 2020 and 2021.
“There is no quick fix to the lack of pilots, so it will be an issue for the holiday season,” he emphasized.
The day before Thanksgiving will be particularly rough.
“We are still recovering from the summer of travel hell, and even though operations have returned to normal in terms of cancellations, delays and luggage not showing up, I still have zero confidence in the airlines having it together for … the day before Thanksgiving, aka the busiest travel day of the year,” Brown said. “If you can avoid taking a plane on Wednesday, [November] 23rd, do it.”
Because Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday, the air travel patterns are easy to predict. Experts maintain that the Wednesday before Turkey Day, and the Sunday after it, are the busiest days for flying ― and therefore the most likely to involve some headaches.
“Fly Tuesday and Saturday ― or fly Thanksgiving Day, which is very quiet,” Brown urged. “Or better yet, host Thanksgiving and have everyone come to you!”
The same goes for the Friday before Christmas.
“With Christmas Day on a Sunday, flights on the Friday and Saturday just before will be packed,” said Sheldon Jacobson, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois who specializes in operations research. “Consider flying during less crowded days.”
Several experts also predicted that Dec. 22, a Thursday, will be a busy flying day. Dec. 26 and Dec. 27, a Monday and Tuesday, are expected to be the worst days for return flights.
“We encourage those who can work remotely to avoid the busiest travel days by extending their trips and working from their destination for a few days,” said Melinda Haughey, CEO and co-founder of the interactive mapping service Proxi. “They can then spend evenings exploring hidden gems in their destination city or catch up on quality time with friends and family.”
International travel will be up.
The past two holiday seasons saw a higher percentage of domestic travel than in pre-pandemic times. However, Kelly believes we’ll see more people taking international trips again for their Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah breaks.
“I also foresee a surge in international travel, especially to places in Asia as those destinations continue to reopen,” he said. “People are eager to take those aspirational trips. On the flip side, prices will start to rise again too.”
Booking early is key.
“I strongly advise those looking to travel this coming holiday season to book their flights as soon as possible,” Dengler said. “There are only a limited number of flights and seats around Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the desirable routes sell out quickly.”
He emphasized that prices will only increase as we get closer to the holidays.
“Ideally, you have your holiday flights booked already, but there are still good deals available,” Dengler said. “Aim to book Thanksgiving and Christmas flights by the middle of September. At the latest, book Thanksgiving flights by Halloween and Christmas flights by Thanksgiving, but even then you will be paying a premium.”
Even if you aren’t traveling by plane, the same wisdom applies to other forms of transit like trains and rental cars. Since demand is high around the holidays, it’s best to lock in a solid rate as soon as possible, as prices will only climb the closer we get to that peak travel time.
Morning flights are probably better.
You can’t control whether a flight will be canceled or delayed, but there are things you can do to better your odds of a smooth travel experience.
“If you must fly, book the first flight out,” Brown said. “It’s miserable waking up at 4 a.m. to get to the airport, but that first flight is the one that is most likely to leave on time. Any other disruptions, weather, mechanical difficulties start to compound as the day grows older.”
In addition to booking early morning flights, Dengler recommends opting for nonstop whenever possible.
“Nonstop flights are better because your odds of experiencing a delay or cancellation increases with each connection,” he said.
Checking luggage might not be advisable.
By now, we’ve all seen the reports of lost and delayed luggage chaos around the world. Although things have improved a bit, the busy holiday season could involve a revival of that unfortunate phenomenon, so you may want to carry on your presents to avoid Christmas-morning disappointment.
“I recommend avoiding checking your luggage if possible,” Dengler said. “Airlines struggled with losing and delaying bags during this past summer’s busy travel season. The lines were also extremely long at some airports to check your bag, which adds to the stress. I think airlines will face similar issues for the holiday season, so carry on your luggage if you can.”
Preparation is crucial for smoother holiday travel.
“In 2020 we saw decreased travel, in 2021 we saw more travel but anxiety about how to travel safely, and in 2022 we believe that travelers will go into holiday travel prepared for an uncertain experience,” Haughey said. “We expect travelers to adapt the way that they travel, including willingness to pay for ways to alleviate this stress ― like buying Clear or arriving at the airport early, then splurging on lounge access.”
The frustrating air travel scenarios that came to pass in high numbers this summer have given people very low expectations for a pleasant experience.
“Expect the unexpected, so if things go smoothly, you will be pleasantly surprised,” Jacobson said. “If they do not, roll with each punch. Book flights with ample connection times. Give yourself sufficient time to get through airport security. Enroll in PreCheck, as an efficient way to traverse airport security. Pack light, and wrap presents after you arrive at your final destination.” (For a fuller explanation of PreCheck and Clear, see here.)
Kelly recommended being proactive and using tools to stay on top of your itinerary.
“Track your flight via FlightAware to see where it’s coming from,” he suggested. “ExpertFlyer is another great tool to check and see if there are other flight options out there or upgrades. Be sure to book ahead and utilize Google Flights to see when airfare is higher or lower than average. Lastly, use your frequent flyer miles when possible, to give yourself maximum flexibility in the event you need to change or cancel your trip.”
And beyond preparing for travel logistics, passengers can continue to do their part to minimize the risk of contracting and spreading COVID by wearing face masks at travel hubs like airports and train stations ― as well as on the planes and trains themselves. Similarly, if you’re exhibiting COVID symptoms, consider taking a test before you head out the door, to help protect staff and fellow passengers.
Passengers need more transparency from airlines.
As we head toward the holiday season and new year, passengers would benefit from being able to feel more secure about the reliability of air travel.
“I personally would like to hear from the airlines with a postmortem of what happened and the specific steps they are taking (hiring pilots, ground crew, reducing flights) that will ease, if not make these problems disappear,” Brown said. “And it does need to be specific, not just saying ‘we are doing all we can.’ The number of passengers showing up every day to fly should not have come as a surprise to them, and yet it appeared they were caught totally off guard.”
No matter how frustrating things get, try not to take out your anger on the employees at the airport and on your flight. They do not control the schedule or corporate policies, and they likely share many of your frustrations. Patience and kindness go a long way.
“Remember that the airline personnel working during the holidays are helping you enjoy your holidays, while they are missing their own,” Jacobson urged. “Thank them for their service.”
All that said, there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic.
“Every holiday season is a challenge for the airlines,” Jacobson said. “The six-week period between Thanksgiving and the New Year have surges of demand with mostly people that are not frequent flyers.”
Although the unprecedented crew shortages and flight disruptions have posed a challenge this summer, he has some hope for the upcoming months.
“With ample time to meet demand, the airlines should be forewarned to ensure that crews are available and schedules are solidified,” Jacobson said. “I am optimistic that they will deliver on that front, though early winter storms can derail even the best laid plans.”
Kelly similarly believes there might be more hiccups this holiday season compared to last year's, but he shares some of Jacobson’s optimism.
“I’m hopeful things will get better as airlines and airports regroup this fall,” he said. “But I still suspect some busy airports like London Heathrow and Amsterdam Schiphol to have some challenges.”