How to be a 5-star traveler this holiday season

Sallie French

If you skipped holiday travel last year (or haven’t traveled at all during the pandemic), your travel skills might be rusty. Plus, some travel etiquette has changed.

Recent history indicates that this holiday travel season will be challenging, as evidenced by chaos seen over this year’s holiday and summer weekends. More than 2,800 Spirit Airlines flights were canceled during a busy travel weekend this summer. Over separate October weekends, American Airlines canceled hundreds of flights, and Southwest canceled more than 1,800. All those events were attributed in part to staffing shortages.

While you might feel understandably surly over a situation that causes you to miss a trip or forces you to pay for a last-minute hotel, sour attitudes probably won’t fix things.

A traveler walks in Terminal 3 as a sign stating face coverings are required is displayed at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago,  July 2, 2021.

Being courteous might get you the preferred room, the last available seat or a complimentary upgrade. Plus, being proactive could make travel more efficient for not just you, but everyone else. Here are five tips to help you be a five-star traveler this holiday season.


Make others’ work more efficient

You’ve heard the incessant announcements at the boarding gate, pleading with people to check their roller bags on full flights.

The earlier you check your bag, the earlier it’s loaded. If the last person to board is the one whose bag gets pried from their hands and sent to cargo, it’s more likely that takeoff will be delayed than had all bags been loaded earlier. Thankfully, many airline credit cards offer free checked bags, and it’s also a perk often offered to airline elite status members. So you might want to think about checking your bag at the counter before you even get through security. Or, if you know you’ll be last to board anyway, gate-check it early.

When it comes to cleaning, many hotel companies provide housekeeping only upon request. Consider if you really need it — or if you can make your own bed.

The leisure and hospitality industry lost 8.2 million jobs in March and April 2020 — an employment decline of 49%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While travel-related jobs are returning (the air transportation sector added 9,200 jobs in October and the accommodations sector added 23,200 jobs), be cognizant that employees may be new, and companies may still be short-staffed. If you use services like housekeeping, tip generously.

Use tech to speed things up

In some cases, technology can solve problems you might otherwise have needed an employee for.

Use mobile check-in to display your airline boarding pass on your phone, no printing necessary. You can also expedite your security wait time with apps like Clear, which use biometric data and allow you to skip to the front of the line. Some hotels can send virtual keys via mobile check-in, so you can skip the front desk altogether. Preorder meals online so cashiers don’t have to take your order.

Respect COVID safety policies

A June letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland from 10 major pilot and flight attendant unions cited a “substantial increase in and growing escalation of passengers’ unruly and disruptive behavior onboard aircraft, particularly toward crewmembers.”

About 73% of 2021’s unruly passenger reports have been mask-related, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

“The duty of enforcing this rule falls to our pilots and flight attendants at 30,000 feet, and passengers who refuse to comply make our difficult jobs harder than they have to be,” said Capt. Eric Ferguson, president of the Allied Pilots Association, a union representing American Airlines pilots, in an August statement.

Even if you disagree with policies, respect the employees who have to follow them. And understand that COVID-19 safety rules vary by location. One city might be tougher than another, so don’t be surprised if your road trip lunch break is mask-free but you’re required to don masks during dinner.

Be considerate of others

Given the rate of unruly passenger reports, it’s perhaps no coincidence that some airlines have suspended in-flight alcoholic beverage service. Even if you’re having a tipple in the terminal before takeoff, drink and act appropriately.

Anywhere you go, have respect for others’ personal space — especially during a pandemic — and remember that a little kindness goes a long way in the service industry.

Go ahead and complain (to the right person)

It’s OK to complain when things are truly bad. Most travel companies offer online customer service forms, and many use social media to field complaints. Just remember that the customer service employee may not have the power to immediately fix the situation.

The bottom line

Sure, there are the grumpy or entitled folk who act like one-star travelers at airports and hotels, but it doesn’t help anyone to be that person. To have a five-star travel experience, first be a five-star traveler yourself.

Sally French is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: