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6 rules for navigating the busiest airports this Thanksgiving

TSA security check at Denver international airport. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

We’ve got some good news and some bad news.

The bad news is that there are going to be more people traveling this year for Thanksgiving. AAA predicts 3.69 million people will travel by plane between Nov. 23 and Nov. 27, an increase of 1.6% over last year.

Adding insult to injury, meteorologists are predicting stormy weather. According to Accuweather, there is the potential for strong rain and snowstorms in the Midwest and East starting on Wednesday, Nov. 23 — one of the busiest Thanksgiving travel days. All of this means that travelers can expect increased traffic to and from the airport, long security lines and slow response times from airlines if flights get delayed or canceled.

OK, so that’s the bad part. The good news is that there are some strategies to minimize your travel discomfort. (Also not too shabby: If you’re traveling from certain airports and are an American Express cardholder, you can get a free Uber ride home.)

The first step is to figure out how bad it’s really going to be. Not all airports are created equal, and during the holidays there are some select travel hubs that the heaviest traffic. According to Hopper, the busiest airports this Thanksgiving Day will be: Atlanta (ATL), Los Angeles (LAX), Chicago (ORD), Dallas (DFW), New York City (JFK), Denver (DEN), San Francisco (SFO), Las Vegas (LAS), Charlotte, NC, (CLT) and Phoenix (PHX). (Several of these are also on the list of worst airports for delays, according to a recent report.)

If you’re flying to or through one of these airports, strategy is key. Here are tips on how best to navigate the travel mess.

Get a mobile boarding pass

This sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people still wait until they’re at the airport to check in for their flight. You’ll save time (and paper) if you check in online from home, get a mobile boarding pass. That way you can bypass the counter and walk straight to security when you arrive at the airport (assuming you have no bag to check).

Don’t check a bag

If you’re making a big vacation out of the holiday, we understand – you need to pack a lot. But if you’ll be gone two, maybe three days, please don’t check a bag. It takes time to check it, it takes time to retrieve it at baggage claim, and it only gives the airline an opportunity to misplace your bag. All of these are headaches you don’t need.

Long lines at Boston Logan International Airport

Scope it out before you go

The rule of thumb is to get to the airport two hours before a domestic flight. This summer, we saw massive delays at some airports, suggesting passengers might want to get to the airport four hours early. Take a bit of guessing out of your arrival by downloading an app like FlightSpeak, which uses crowdsourced information, historical data and the number of scheduled flights to display security wait times at more than 301 airports. The TSA app also has a similar feature.

Take advantage of security options

By now you’ve likely heard of TSA Precheck and how it can help you glide through the airport. This is true, but if you haven’t already signed up, you won’t get approved in time to use it for Thanksgiving travel. (Approval can take 2-3 weeks, so apply now for Christmas travel.) With that said, if you do have TSA Precheck, we suggest logging onto your airline’s website to make sure you’ve listed your Known Traveler Number on the reservation. It’s a simple step, but there’s nothing worse than having TSA Precheck and not being able to use it.

One option you do have time to sign up for is CLEAR. This service allows you to skip the long line at security and go straight to the bag screening area. It differs from TSA Precheck because while it let’s you skip the line, you still have to take off your shoes and remove your laptop and toiletries in the security line. CLEAR costs $15 a month, and after enrolling online, applicants simply have to stop by an enrollment center for a quick in-person registration. After that, you’re approved right away and can use CLEAR at your local airport the same day. CLEAR is currently available in 17 cities, including airports in Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas and San Francisco. Use the code CLEAR21 to get six months of CLEAR for just $50.

Don’t wait in line for a rental car

We’ve all been there. Your flight lands, you grab your suitcase and bypass all of the silly people waiting for their luggage at baggage claim. You’re feeling great —  until you get to the rental car counter and see a line of 20 people in front of you. Save time on picking up your rental car by joining a rental car loyalty program, many of which are free and allow you to skip the counter. For instance, membership to the Avis Preferred program is free, and allows customers to skip the counter and go directly to their cars. Want to upgrade your car or view your rental agreement? Simply download the Avis Now app to modify your reservation.

With Alamo, customers can also “skip the counter” at certain locations when they check in online. National has a similar policy.

Get picked up at the departures terminal

When several flights land at the same time, the arrivals terminal can get chaotic. If you have a loved one or ride share picking you up, have them meet you at the departures terminal, which is typically located up a flight of stairs by ticketing. Sure, you’ll still have to dodge other passengers, but chances are there will be fewer people and less traffic.

Brittany is a writer at Yahoo Finance.

Read more:

Here’s how to get a free Uber ride from the airport this holiday season

Airports to avoid and more tips for holiday travel survival

5 free apps to download before your Thanksgiving road trip