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How to survive the Thanksgiving holiday flight season

Thanksgiving travel isn't likely to make the list of "things we're thankful for" anytime soon.

An estimated 27.3 million Americans are expected to fly during Thanksgiving week, according to a report from Airlines for America. That's an increase of 2.5 percent compared with last year — roughly 55,000 more passengers.

Passengers arrive and depart from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Getty Images
Passengers arrive and depart from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Holiday crowds can trigger long airport lines and jammed overhead bins, and make it tough to get on another flight if your original one is delayed or canceled.

"As much as you can, start thinking about Plan B," said Ed Perkins, a contributing editor for SmarterTravel.com. "If there is a problem, what are you going to do?"

Get ready

Some of the best travel tactics require planning — picking a nonstop flight instead of one with a layover, for example, applying for trusted traveler status to gain access to priority security lines and avoiding airports prone to bad winter weather and other delays.

But even at the last minute, plenty of strategies can help travelers troubleshoot travel woes.

Download the airline app

Most let you check in for your flight via an app and get a digital boarding pass, allowing you to skip the airport check-in line. Sign up for alerts relating to your flight — they're often the first you'll hear about a gate change or sudden delay, helping you react quickly, said James Cury, editorial director of ThePointsGuy.com.

Invest in a priority pass

Depending on the airline and airport, these may get you access to special check-in or security lines (which are often faster), or early boarding on the flight itself (for first dibs on overhead bin space), said George Hobica, publisher of AirfareWatchdog.com. Buy in advance, or even at the airport.

United, for example, charges as little as $15 per flight segment for such services. (The airline announced on Tuesday that passengers holding a "basic economy" ticket will be limited to one bag that fits under your seat.) JetBlue offers expedited security for as little as $10.

Assess bag-check options

One line might be shorter than another, Perkins said. Depending on the airline and airport, you may have access to curbside bag check, or special lines or drop points for already-ticketed passengers who just need to hand over their bag.

Compare security lines

The TSA advises arriving at least two hours early for domestic flights during the peak holiday season in anticipation of longer lines.

It also helps to know your options. See if you have multiple security checkpoints open to you, Hobica said. There can be multiple checkpoints per terminal, and many terminals are interconnected, he said, so you might be able to trade a longer walk for a shorter line.

Some airports, like Phoenix Sky Harbor International, also display average security wait times on monitors in the airport to keep travelers up to date.

Compartmentalize carry-on bags

If your carry-on bag won't fit beneath your seat, consider packing a smaller tote as well, Cury said. That way, if you're forced to check your bag at the gate, you can pull out any valuables.

Come up with a plan B

"Figure out what would be your ideal situation, or least worst alternative, if your regular flight is disrupted," Perkins said.

With full flights, it's not a bad idea to have some sense of what your plans will allow, he said — could you take a flight that gets in early Thanksgiving morning, or fly to a different airport in the area?

That lets you decide quickly if whatever alternative the airline is offering will work, or if you need to ask for a refund and make other Thanksgiving plans.