How to Survive Holiday Travel Stress


The holiday season is characterized by parties, shopping, gift wrapping and family gatherings. You can also argue that this season is also notorious for waiting in line, spending, traffic and crowds. This is especially true when it comes to traveling during the holidays.

Thanksgiving especially is when the traffic and crowds associated with travel hit an all-time high, with people trying to get to their loved ones near and far. All this commotion on top of an experience that can already ignite stress and anxiety may lead you to avoid traveling at all costs, even if that means missing out on seeing family and friends.

While it’s true that the holidays and air travel respectively serve as sources of worry and stress, that doesn’t mean you should have to miss out on making memories, if making those memories require you to board a plane.

Here’s everything you need to know to understand why you may run into stress and anxiety, how to cope with it and why, in the end, it could all be worth it.

Where do stress and anxiety come from?

Travel in and of itself can trigger stress and anxiety.

“Traveling is full of uncertainty. It’s away from everyday routine and the comfort zones we are used to. Anything can go wrong or be a risk. And if travel involves riding planes and an individual has a fear of flying, then it can be extra stressful,” says Dr. Perpetua Neo, a clinical psychologist.

The holiday season can also serve as a stress and anxiety trigger.

“The holidays mean that places are crowded or we’re meeting people we may not want to meet, for instance at family or social occasions. This can bring up a lot of feelings of anxiety around social situations or about ourselves, especially if we’re not feeling too good about ourselves for reasons like our work, achievements and appearances,” she says. The spending, shopping and feasting during the holidays can also create pressure.

So when travel and the holidays collide, it’s no surprise that the mere thought of traveling during the holidays can send some people into panic mode.

“Sometimes people can start to associate the stressors of travel with the holidays, or vice versa, and develop an aversion to both. The thought of either [traveling or the holidays] can become very stressful and anxiety-provoking, which may lead the individual to want to avoid them,” Dr. Neo says.

Stress and anxiety are more than emotions and thoughts

Anxiety can manifest as a quickened heartbeat, racing mind, sweaty palms, tight stomach and quick breathing. Anxiety-related thoughts may include “I need to worry,” “Something bad will happen,” “What if XYZ happens?” and “I need to escape.”

Not only do these symptoms leave you feeling uncomfortable and out of control, but chronic stress and anxiety can be detrimental to your physical health.

“Prolonged stress and anxiety have been found to be linked to cardiovascular disease, premature aging, and lowered immunity,” Dr. Neo says. “They can also lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as binge drinking to relieve stress or social anxiety or comfort eating to escape, which, in turn, cause even poorer health outcomes.”

Here’s what you can do to alleviate stress and anxiety

You can, of course, just not travel during the holidays or avoid other situations that stress you out or promote anxiety. But instead of limiting yourself and potentially missing out on an amazing experience, know that there are ways to cope with and manage feelings of stress and anxiety.

First, recognize and acknowledge that you’re stressed without judging or beating yourself up over.

“Often, we treat ourselves very harshly or deny how we feel, which in turn increases our stress levels,” Dr. Neo says. “Instead, when you’re stressed or worrying, simply say to yourself ‘stressed’ or ‘worried.’”

Next, ask yourself if what you’re stressed or worrying about is something you can control or solve. If you can’t control or solve what’s causing your worries, Dr. Neo suggests thanking your anxiety because it’s trying to protect you. “Imagine filing your worry away in a safe place,” she says.

If it is something you can control, Dr. Neo suggests asking yourself if it’s a major or minor decision. “If it’s minor, trust yourself and make a decision rather than hem and haw. If it’s major, take steps to solve it, rather than worry,” she says.

Then, mindfully consider your worries and stressors. Doing this will help you recognize that just as thoughts and feelings come out of nowhere, they can just as quickly disappear as long as you don’t entertain them.

If you’re sitting in or making your way through a crowded airport waiting for a flight, this may be easier said than done. If you find yourself in this situation, first, be kind to yourself, rather than calling yourself names or being harsh to yourself. You will soon get through TSA, you will have a seat on your plane, and you will get to your destination.

And then there’s training yourself to decide when to worry and when not to.

“Often people worry a lot because they believe that worrying is helpful and that worrying solves problems. Worrying opens up an infinite mind-scape of distressing possibilities, making problems seem catastrophic at times. They key is to differentiate when worrying doesn’t solve problems,” Dr. Neo says.

These tools and coping mechanisms can be incredibly effective when you’re dealing with stress and anxiety, but there are some cases where you may need more. When you feel like you simply can’t cope with the stress of a situation, it’s time to seek professional help.

The juice can be worth the squeeze

Despite the possibility of crowds and traffic, you should consider traveling during the holidays anyway. You may find it’s not as bad as the media reports it will be.

“I generally fly from Philly International Airport and don’t notice a difference the week before Thanksgiving or flying home on or after the holiday,” says Suzanne Wolko, an avid traveler and blogger for “In the cities that are big for connections, like Atlanta and Charlotte, as well as the more crowded cities like LAX and JFK, I think they are the ones that get hit the most during the holidays especially if there are delays and missed connections.”

Wolko regularly travels during the holidays and, in her experience, has found that traffic and crowds in and surrounding airports aren’t as bad as it seems during the holidays.

“In Philly, the terminals are older and teem with people on a normal day for domestic flights,” she says.

Reports leading up to the holidays with predictions of how many Americans plans to travel during the holidays feed into the fear and inconvenience factor of travel, Wolko says.

“There will always be airports that are packed because of old infrastructure. There will always be crowds at the airport, on the roads and at the market, especially at Thanksgiving when most of the U.S. celebrates and goes home to see family by plane, train or automobile,” she says.

You can make holiday travel easier for yourself and your family

In addition to finding ways to mentally cope with stress and anxiety, you can also plan ahead to make the actual process of traveling easier and less stressful.

First, you may be able to avoid the worst of the crowds by being conscious about what days you fly.

“If possible, try to fly or drive on a less busy travel day. For example, instead of flying out on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving consider flying Thanksgiving morning. Instead of flying back on Sunday fly back on Saturday or Monday,” says Matilda Geroulis, a travel expert and co-writer and co-founder of The Travel Sisters.

And then there’s where you plan to travel.

“Go away from the crowds…fly international,” Wolko says. “I’ve traveled to Europe and Australia as it’s off-season. Prices are not as expensive, business city hotels aren’t full and international flights aren’t full.”

There’s another way you can eliminate some of your holiday travel stress when you book your flights – skip having to make connecting flights. “I try to book direct flights without the worry and stress of connections and crowds,” Wolko says. If you have to book your trip with connecting flights, try to find flights that will give you a sufficiently long layover in between.

“I prefer to have at least an hour and half connection on domestic flights. Even though a shorter connection might be legal, if the first flight is delayed you might not make the second flight. If you have a few choices of cities to connect in, choose a city with better weather to minimize weather delays or cancellation,” Geroulis says. Doing this may keep you from recreating the scene in “Home Alone” when the McCallister family is sprinting through the airport.

If you book a long connection, or simply plan on being at the airport early (which is another stress-busting holiday travel tip), there’s a way you can wait for your flight comfortably away from the mass of other air travelers. “Consider purchasing lounge access, if you are not entitled to it for free. Some lounges offer day passes for $50 dollars, but access includes free food, drinks and Wi-Fi,” she says.

Going through airport security can already be stressful. Waiting in long lines can make it even worse. But, the good news is that you can make arrangements ahead of time to get through security a little quicker. “Sign up for TSA Precheck or Global Entry, which includes TSA Precheck,” Geroulis suggests. “TSA Precheck makes going through airport security faster and easier because you don’t have to take off your shoes, liquids, belt, or light jacket. In addition, the lines for TSA Precheck are frequently shorter than the regular lines.” Wolko has Global entry and echoes Geroulis’ sentiments. “Global Entry allows me Precheck at many airports, which makes security less of an issue,” Wolko says.

Whether or not you sign up for TSA Precheck, you should plan on getting to the airport earlier than usual – yes, even earlier than you would any other time of the year. More people are flying, which means lines to check your luggage and lines to get through security will be that much longer.

“I arrive at least two hours ahead for a domestic [flight] and three hours for an international flight,” Wolko says.

Before the day of your flight, make sure to save your airline’s phone number in your cell phone. “If your flight is cancelled, you can quickly call customer service and have a better chance of being rebooked on the next flight,” Geroulis says.

If you have children and they’re flying with you, keeping them happy and occupied will help make the travel go smoother. “If your travel involves any members of the younger set, age appropriate activities such as reading, coloring books, favorite stuffed animal, crossword puzzles, movies or music go a very long way toward ensuring everyone’s happiness for the day,” says Pris Phillips, Cruises Inc. Independent Vacation Specialist.

She also suggests bringing snacks your kids like or grabbing them in the airport after you get through security – it’s another way to keep them happy and occupied. Just make sure you ration them out so they last the length of your travels.

“The greatest thing about holiday travel is that careful planning can result in the most amazing set of holiday memories and the gift is the trip itself. Isn’t that much easier than struggling at the mall to find that perfect gift for each member of your family?” Phillips says.

Oh, and those holiday gifts you were planning on bringing with you? Save yourself some stress and space in your luggage and ship them to your destination ahead of time.


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