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Tricks for easier holiday air travel

Even without winter storms delaying commercial flights, Santa's sleigh may be the speediest form of holiday travel. Unfortunately, he doesn't take on passengers—which means the roughly 5 million Americans that fly over Christmas and New Year's will need to take other steps for a relaxing flight.

To snag the best cheap seat, use a site such as SeatGuru.com to weigh the pros and cons. Seats in the last five rows are often an inch or so narrower than those toward the front, and those ahead of exit rows often don't fully recline.

Check back in the days ahead of your flight to see if a better seat has freed up—they often do, as elites are upgraded or travelers opt to pay for extra legroom.

Speaking of which, paying for a better seat might be worth it, for a longer flight.

Not only do you get more room amid holiday crowds, but airlines including JetBlue have priority security lines at some airports for coach passengers who bought extra legroom seats. (If you're upgrading to first or business class, Delta, Southwest, United and others extend similar perks.)

By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @kelligrant.

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