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The holiday travel season will be here before you know it. This year, you should be prepared for a record number of passengers to travel by plane. U.S. airlines carried a record high 1 billion passengers in 2018, 4.8% more than the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).
The research team at CompareCards analyzed 10 years of U.S. Department of Transportation holiday flight data between 2009 and 2018 at the 50 busiest airports in the U.S. to find out which ones have the worst track records when it comes to getting to your destination on time.
For research purposes, we define holiday travel as flights that depart between Dec. 20 and Dec. 31 each year. And flight delays refer to any flights arriving 15 minutes or more late to its destination, or if it’s canceled outright.
Depending on your airport of choice, the chances of having to deal with an annoying flight delay could be higher than other travelers. After digging into flight delay data at the 50 busiest airports, we came up with some insights to help predict how likely it is that your arrival may run behind schedule. And because delays can’t be entirely avoided, we also offer tips on how to handle them if they happen to you.
- The 2nd city comes in first for delays. If you fly out of a Chicago airport to see loved ones during the holidays, there’s a good chance that your visit will be cut short. Our research found that Chicago-area airports are the most likely to have flights delayed during the holiday season. In fact, just 63% of flights out of Chicago’s Midway airport reached their destinations on time, the worst of any airport we reviewed. That means more than one in three flights arrive at least 15 minutes late, with almost 3% canceled outright. At nearby O’Hare, it’s not much better, with only 65% of flights reaching their destinations within 15 minutes of scheduled arrival times. Just under 4% of flights are canceled there.
- Most likely to have a canceled flight award goes to … Newark. Not only does the New Jersey airport have the third-worst flight delay record on the list, with just over 65% of departing flights arriving on time, it also has the distinction of having the highest December holiday cancellation rates, with a 10-year average of 4%.
- Say Aloha (hello, that is) to reliable travel. Travelers leaving Honolulu can expect the most reliable air travel, with 86% of flights reaching their destinations on time. Kahului comes in second place, with 85% of flights arriving on time.
- Pacific Northwest for the win. Portland and Seattle come in third and fourth place to be the most reliable for December travel, with both averaging 78% of on-time flight arrival.
- Don’t count out The Big Apple. New York’s LaGuardia airport rounds of the top five best airports for holiday travel, with 77% of flights reaching their destinations on time.
- The flight delay hall of shame. More than one in three flights originating at these airports were delayed: Chicago Midway, Chicago O’Hare, Newark, Denver and Houston Hobby.
How to prepare for holiday flight delays
Whether your area airport has poor marks for on-time arrivals or not, it’s always good to be proactive with your planning, and be prepared to ride out a possible delay. Here are some holiday travel strategies that may help:
Choose nonstop if possible. You may pay more for a direct flight, but it could save you a headache, and maybe even money in the long run. Think about it: If your first flight is delayed, you may miss your connection, and now you’re stuck in a city that’s not near your home.
Know your rights. Airlines are required by the FAA to be upfront about what accommodations or refunds they offer passengers in the case of a flight delay or cancellation. If you’re not getting that information, ask for it. The U.S. Department of Transportation has a list of guidelines that airlines must follow for flight delays and cancellations.
Set your alarm and take an early flight. All it takes is for one flight coming in late to back up the rest of the flights scheduled for the day. So if you go with the first flight out, your plane will likely be there for you already, thus upping your odds of getting out on time.
Try a different airport. If your usual airport hasn’t been good to you in the past (or if it’s high up on our list), you might consider looking into other airports nearby. Even if you have to travel a bit longer to get there, it may be worth it to avoid an hourlong flight delay. For example, LaGuardia Airport in New York had the fifth best on-time record, while New York’s JFK had the sixth worst.
Book flights in advance. Don’t wait until the week before Christmas to try to find a holiday flight. You’ll have a bigger variety of flight times and options the earlier you book.
Use those credit card perks. Flight delays in a crowded airport can feel a bit less tortuous if your credit card allows you complimentary or low-cost airport lounge access. Your card might also help defray the cost of being delayed or a canceled flight if it has a trip delay reimbursement and/or trip cancellation benefit. Browse your card’s benefits or give customer service a call before you travel so you know what’s available to you — just in case.
Stay informed with apps. You could spend your day walking back and forth to check the giant flight board in the airport, or you could download your airline’s app and a couple of other flight-tracking apps. Some options include FlightView, FlightAware, Flight Board, Flightradar24 and FlightStats. Most airline careers will also send text notifications, so sign up for those, too. Staying in the know will position you to be first in line to make other arrangements or book a hotel if necessary.
Holiday travel might feel like a necessary evil but the final destination is always well worth it. By planning ahead, having a well-stocked carry-on to survive any potential delays and staying informed throughout your travel day, you can leave some of the extra stress baggage behind and arrive ready to celebrate.
CompareCards analyzed 10 years of Department of Transportation flight data (2009 – 2018) for the 50 busiest airports in the U.S. for travel dates Dec. 20-31 each year. On-time is defined as flights departing the airport that reach their destination within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival time.