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This is the worst day, the worst airport to fly: What to know for a smooth holiday flight

Holiday travel season is here and many people are dusting off their suitcases. For those who haven’t traveled in a while, heading to the airport can seem daunting, but a little planning and some know-how can help make the trip relatively smooth.

There’s some good news for travelers this year: While it’s expected to be a hectic holiday season, airlines have become more reliable in the past year, Haley Berg, lead economist at travel planning site Hopper, told USA TODAY.

“Even with improved disruption rates headed into the holiday season, travelers should plan ahead for potential disruptions,” she said. “Extreme weather and technical failures can have outsized impacts during these busy travel periods."

Certain days and times are better for travel than others, especially during the holidays when airports are extra crowded. And it’s usually better to be protected by travel insurance.

Here’s what you need to know as we approach this busy time for flying:

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What are the worst and best travel days?

According to Hopper, more travelers are expected to hit the skies this December compared to last, with an 11% increase in airline capacity.

Most people are predicted to fly out for their holiday trips on Thursday, Dec. 21, and Friday, Dec. 22. And expected to return home on Thursday, Dec. 28, and Friday, Dec. 29.

Travelers can anticipate up to 3.7 million travelers at airports on these days.

The least busy travel days are going to be on the holidays themselves, including Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Not only will you encounter smaller crowds on these unpopular flying days, but you may actually save some cash.

What are the busiest airports during holidays?

Traffic builds up outside terminals at the Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, Friday, July 1, 2022. The July Fourth holiday weekend is off to a booming start with airport crowds crushing the numbers seen in 2019, before the pandemic. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Traffic builds up outside terminals at the Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, Friday, July 1, 2022. The July Fourth holiday weekend is off to a booming start with airport crowds crushing the numbers seen in 2019, before the pandemic. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

During the Christmas week of Dec. 21 and Dec. 27, the busiest airports will be the ones known for connecting flights.

Brace yourself for over 1.4 million passengers are expected to be at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Denver International Airport and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport are closely behind, with over 1 million travelers going through their respective terminals.

Other busy airports include Los Angeles International Airport and Orlando International Airport.

According to Hopper, these airports will be especially packed in the morning time between 8 a.m. and noon.

Like with hectic Thanksgiving travel, people should consider flying to a smaller, regional airport, such as Long Island MacArthur Airport, instead of John F. Kennedy International Airport to save money.

How can I make it to my destination on time?

Add a buffer day: Don’t just arrive at the airport early; add an extra day to your travels if there’s an event you can’t miss. “This way, you’ll have some wiggle room, should any delays or disruptions interfere with your travel plans,” Hopper said.

Travel early in the day to avoid delays: Loulu Lima, founder of the Texas-based travel agency Book Here Give Here, said morning flights are typically less likely to be delayed, but there are some tradeoffs.

“The chances of having delays and things like that are going to happen later in the day than they are earlier, but the earlier flights are going to be the more expensive ones,” she said. “If you’re budget conscious, know you might have delays later on.”

Lima added that if you have the flexibility to travel on the actual day of a holiday, that can be a great way to avoid crowds and save some money.

“The day before is insane, but flying the day of, most people have already gotten to their destination,” she said. “If you are willing to forego hanging out in the U.S. during the holidays, as an example, Thanksgiving, hanging out in Europe, it’s low season for them. You get a chance to go and experience a little bit of Europe for a lower price.”

Book early to save: Amy Annis, a senior travel adviser at Ciao Bambino, said it’s a good idea to book your tickets early if possible.

“I’m getting a lot of requests right now for last-minute festive trips and there’s a premium. You’re getting what’s left over and you’re paying a premium for it,” she said.

Airlines know that holidays are popular travel times and charge a premium to those who want to do it.

Travelers queue up to check in at the Southwest Airlines counter in Denver International Airport after a winter storm swept over the country packing snow combined with Arctic cold, which created chaos for people trying to reach their destinations before the Christmas holiday, Friday, Dec. 23, 2022, in Denver.
Travelers queue up to check in at the Southwest Airlines counter in Denver International Airport after a winter storm swept over the country packing snow combined with Arctic cold, which created chaos for people trying to reach their destinations before the Christmas holiday, Friday, Dec. 23, 2022, in Denver.

Leave yourself plenty of time at the airport: Not just to go through security but to make connections too.

Both Lima and Annis said winter weather could snarl air traffic, and crowds can make security lines extra long. Especially for infrequent travelers, it’s a good idea to get to the airport early and leave yourself at least an hour or more between connecting flights.

Lima said it usually takes at least 20 minutes to get off the plane if you’re sitting near the back, and that can quickly eat away at your connection time, leaving you to sprint across the airport or worse, miss your next flight.

Be nice and patient: The perennial advice to make any travel go more smoothly is to be nice to the other people in the airport.

“You cannot travel with your diva-ness,” Lima said. “If you pack your entitlement with you, you are going to have a problem moreso during the holiday than during the rest of the year because nobody wants to put up with your BS.”

Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. You can reach her at kwong@usatoday.com. Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at zwichter@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: When should I fly for Christmas? Holiday air travel tips from experts.