An illustration of various travel scenes.
Illustration: R. Kikuo Johnson

If you thought summer travel was challenging, you may want to brace yourself for the holidays. You can expect service lags and interruptions as airlines and auto rental companies continue to struggle with a shortage of pilots, planes, and vehicles. Many popular hotels are also booking up fast for fall and winter, according to travel experts, and long lines at check-ins are likely because of understaffing.

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause disruption at home and abroad, forcing many destinations to tighten rules in the face of fresh outbreaks. For travelers, this means staying on top of frequent changes.

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And if you end up needing travel assistance before, during, or after your trip, you may feel like taking another vacation just to make it through the phone wait times. To put a fine point on it, if you’re traveling these days, “you need patience and flexibility,” says Scott Mayerowitz, executive editor of the Points Guy, a travel website.

Still, there are ways to minimize hassles. Here are expert answers to nine key questions that can help prevent problems and cushion you from the bumps that may crop up.

What Can You Do to Make Travel Easier Later in the Season?

Make sure your driver’s license, passport, and other important documents are current. If not, fill out renewal forms ASAP, but expect extra-long delays: Routine passport service can now take up to 18 weeks, and expedited requests up to 12 weeks.

Consider enrolling in Clear, Global Entry, or the Transportation Security Administration’s TSA PreCheck, which will let you fast-track through security. Some premium credit cards may offer membership, as well as airport lounge access, where you can wait comfortably for your boarding call, have a snack, and get help with same-day scheduling changes, says Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com.

If you’ll need a rental car, reserve now (see “Are There Good Ways to Get a Rental Car?” below). Download airline and other travel provider apps, and save their contact info.

Do You Need to Take Health Precautions for U.S. Travel?

Yes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises Americans to delay travel until two weeks after their final COVID-19 vaccination. If you’re unvaccinated and must travel, the CDC recommends a COVID-19 test one to three days beforehand; a mask on public transportation, including airplanes, and as otherwise required; and social distancing. Get tested three to five days after returning, and self-quarantine for seven days.

Even if you’re fully vaccinated, the CDC advises masking up in certain areas and on public transportation, and some business and community rules require it. (Get info on the CDC's Travelers Health page.) And take your vaccine record, in case any venues ask for it.

Essential Steps to Take Before You Go
Attending to these last-minute details can help keep your travel plans on track

3 DAYS BEFORE

Reconfirm reservations. This should include those for airlines, car rentals, hotels, tours, and restaurants. Recheck digital tools. Make sure you can log in to your provider apps and other travel apps. Add any missing customer service numbers to your phone contacts.

Sign up for travel-provider alerts. This way you’ll get immediate info on changes.

Give credit card issuers your contact info. They can contact you if any charges are flagged for fraud.

THE DAY BEFORE

Check in online. Doing this 24 hours before departure can help you skip lines.

Print your boarding pass. It’s wise to have a backup for your digital pass. If you have TSA PreCheck or Global Entry and it’s not indicated on the pass, call the airline and provide your Known Traveler Number.

Gather documents. Put your passport, driver’s license, boarding pass, and other essentials in a folder or an envelope, so they’re all together.

Scroll key websites. Check CDC, State Department, and other websites for news that might affect your plans.

Pack only TSA-approved items. The checklist on the TSA website can guide you.

EN ROUTE TO THE AIRPORT

Check your phone for notifications such as gate-change announcements.

Make sure your travel documents will be easy to grab when they’re needed.

Give a heads-up. Alert friends and family at your destination that you’re on the way to see them.

What If You Want to Go Abroad?

First, figure out where you can and can’t go. “The important thing is to not rely on what an airline rep tells you on the phone when you book a flight,” says Wendy Perrin, whose website, at wendyperrin.com, offers personalized travel rec­om­men­da­tions. Check the State Department website, which has advisories for other countries and links to their COVID-19 entry rules. Monitor this regularly until your trip date.

Have a plan for coming home, too. The CDC requires that airline passengers returning to the U.S. get tested no more than three days before flying and present a negative result or proof of COVID-19 recovery. (Consider packing home COVID-19 testing kits. Results from certain kits can be used for reentry and may also fit the rules for your destination.)

Will a Travel Agent Make Your Trip Easier?

Working with a good travel agent, aka a travel adviser, is a smart move, says Charlie Leocha, president of the nonprofit Travelers United. Advisers can not only plan and book your trip but also alert you to changing COVID-19 rules and disruptions, and they can typically rebook you faster if a flight is canceled.

Costs vary: Some premium credit card benefits include travel services, and some agents offer services gratis to consumers and get a commission from travel providers. Others charge a fee, perhaps $35 to several hundred dollars. Before signing on, ask about an adviser’s services, fees, and membership in professional groups, such as the American Society of Travel Advisors, says William McGee, aviation adviser for Consumer Reports. Note: Consolidator sites, such as Orbitz and Priceline, may net you a cheaper package, but if you use one and your plans change, you’ll have to rebook through the consolidator, which can be complicated.

Should You Get Travel Insurance?

It’s wise right now, especially for pricey trips. Standard travel insurance reimburses fully for certain expenses—these vary by policy—if your plans are interrupted by unforeseen events (think medical emergency, earthquake, airline strike). It doesn’t cover COVID-related disruptions, such as a destination barring travelers, says Megan Moncrief, chief marketing officer at the comparison site Squaremouth. The same holds true if you don’t receive a passport in time to travel or if you simply decide to cancel.

Standard coverage usually costs 4 to 10 percent of your trip’s total amount. But your credit card carrier may provide free coverage, so check first. Or get price quotes at a website such as InsureMyTrip or Squaremouth, or through your travel agent.

Cancel for Any Reason coverage reimburses for events that standard insurance doesn’t, such as COVID-19-related disruptions. It generally costs 40 percent more than a standard policy and reimburses up to 75 percent. You can buy standard insurance almost until departure, but you must buy CFAR coverage typically within 14 to 21 days of booking.

Are There Good Ways to Get a Rental Car?

The rental car shortage (and the resulting high prices) is likely to continue into spring, Leocha says. So book your rental car ASAP, ideally before making other plans. Look beyond the national chains, too: Local car rental agencies, private limos, and peer-to-peer rental firms such as Turo may have availability. Or focus on destinations with good public transportation, such as Chicago and New York City, says Dani Johnson, vice president of Coastline Travel Advisors in Garden Grove, Calif.

Will Hotels and Resorts Be Fully Up and Running?

Because of worker shortages and COVID-19 restrictions, many establishments have cut back services such as hot breakfast buffets and daily room cleaning. So for these, or amenities such as gyms and restaurants, call and ask whether they’ll be available. Too few perks? Consider a bed-and-breakfast or a vacation rental. “If your [hotel] breakfast is a wrapped-up muffin, how is that better than staying in an Airbnb?” says Brett Snyder, president of the Cranky Concierge air travel assistance service.

Who Can Help With Flight, Car Rental, or Hotel Problems?

It depends on the specifics. But you’ll need to be polite and persistent, and you might need to try multiple channels. Flight delay? Call the airline or use its app, even if you’re in line for the gate agent—this may enable you to schedule a flight change or connect with help faster, Snyder says. You can also tag the travel provider on social media and request assistance.

If the car rental agency doesn’t have the vehicle you reserved, ask for a different car—perhaps an upgrade—or for one at a nearby location. For a room glitch, ask the manager about availability at other hotels. Or check bed-and-breakfasts and vacation rental websites. Ask the providers for refunds or credits if they don’t come through.

How Do You Handle Issues That Linger After Your Trip?

For problems such as an incorrect charge, phone the provider’s customer service. (For airline issues, call before East Coast business hours begin, to get to the head of the line, says Willis Orlando, a flight expert at the website Scott’s Cheap Flights.) Email the business, too: State the problem and desired resolution, and enclose documentation.

If you used a credit card, you have 60 days after receiving the bill to dispute errors by sending a letter. The bank has 30 days to respond. If the issue involves the quality of the purchase, you must first attempt to get resolution from the merchant. Check with the bank for details.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the October 2021 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.