updated 11/24/2010 10:34:11 AM ET 2010-11-24T15:34:11

Some trips through the airport are hassle-free: no lines at check-in, a turbulence-free ride and early touchdown.

Most aren't.

Thanksgiving weekend is the busiest time of year to fly, and that means crowds, delays, long lines and a stressful experience guaranteed to get the weekend off on the wrong foot. But it doesn't have to be that way.

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With a little planning, forethought and some realism about what is needed for the trip, every traveler can take steps to make the Thanksgiving travel gauntlet less harrowing, and their holiday weekend a lot more fun.

In Pictures: How To Get Through The Airport Fast 

Smart travelers have their own preferred methods of checkpoint expediency. Some have a favorite pair of traveling shoes that slip on and off easily, others have already emptied the contents of their pockets into their carry-on bags. A true sign of the travel ninjas? They keep their ID and passport in a holder around their neck, within handy reach, and don't gum up the works by storing these essential items in different pockets or bags.

Being prepared is the key to getting through security fast. "Don't think you can just sneak by with a belt on," says Sascha Segan, author of "Fly Safe, Fly Smart." "Many delays are caused by people doing things right in front of the machines that they should have done 10 minutes previously."

Slideshow: Thanksgiving travelers (on this page)

The Transportation Security Administration maintains a list of things you can do to get through the line faster, and their tips — pack your bag in an organized manner, wrap or bind all power cords, place coats or jackets into your bags before the scan — are good ones. But there are other steps the savvy passenger can take to speed the process along even more.

A smart traveler's preparations begin before leaving for the airport. "Complete your check-in at home, and print your boarding pass," says Douglas Stallings, senior editor at Fodor's. "This is especially important if you aren't checking bags. Then you walk straight to security upon entering the airport."

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You can also research the layout of your departing and arriving airport terminals before you leave home, and check the gate numbers before you leave. Some airports have security checkpoints away from the main entrances, often near gates that are further away from ticket counters, and these can often have shorter lines.

"If you see a ball of people backed up at security, know where the other security lanes are," says David Lytle, editorial director at Frommer's. "For instance, at San Francisco International Airport, there's a security lane behind the United check-in counter that usually has about one-eighth the people."

Many frequent travelers take full advantage of the one-bag, one-personal-item rule, and bring one carry-on plus a computer bag or other smaller item that can accommodate other necessities. If you don't check a bag, you avoid the time spent checking in, and then waiting at the baggage carousel after your flight. One bag is usually all the smart traveler needs for trips shorter than one week.

Many airports are beginning to require passengers to use the newer full-body scanners. These are still controversial, and many travelers are worried about privacy issues (the scans leave nothing to the imagination). Right now passengers can opt out of the scan, but the trade-off will probably be a delay, and will definitely involve some up-close and personal contact.

Travel experts advise taking the scan if you're in a hurry. "While it's an invasion of privacy and a huge annoyance, if you ask for a pat-down instead of going through the full-body scanner, you may be delayed and touched in very personal places," says Stallings. "And you'll have all your luggage checked meticulously."

Finally, once you are through security, there are two types of people at the waiting area of an airport gate: those who line up 10 minutes before they can board, and those who remain seated and calm, catching up on e-mail or finishing a chapter in their novel. Be the second type. By booking early and choosing the closest possible row to the door, you may have to board last — and in rare cases, risk losing overhead storage space — but you'll be among the first out. The longest 15 minutes of a flight are usually the last. And since you've checked no bags, you'll be out of the airport that much sooner.

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Video: Holiday travel rush gets into gear

  1. Transcript of: Holiday travel rush gets into gear

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: Here at home, the holiday travel rush is officially on. And the estimated 24 million Americans expected to fly to their Thanksgiving Day destinations are having to deal with those tough new airport screening techniques. We have got things covered, from the airports to the roads and rail, and Al 's holiday forecast well. We're going to begin with NBC 's Tom Costello . He is at TSA checkpoint at Reagan National Airport . Tom , good morning to you.

    TOM COSTELLO reporting: Hi , Meredith , good morning to you. And we're watching this checkpoint because, remember, this is the day that some on the Internet have called for a national opt-out day; protest, they claim, protest those full body scanners and tie up TSA checkpoints as a way of protesting. I would say this is probably about a 10, 15 minute wait or so. It's been moving pretty quickly, pretty well throughout the morning. But the concern is that if there are protests, it could cause backups and delays. Most years, travel on this day before Thanksgiving is all about the weather. But this year it's about how many travelers might choose to protest and tie up TSA checkpoints by opting out of those new full body scanners and insisting on a pat-down. The opt-out organizer says he chose this day for a reason.

    Mr. BRIAN SODERGREN (Opt-Out Organizer): You're going to choose a day when people are paying attention and when most folks are going to be flying. I mean, it doesn't make sense to do it any other time. I don't think anyone's going to miss Thanksgiving because of any sort of protest.

    COSTELLO: That would be welcome news at Chicago 's O'Hare International , the nation's second busiest airport ...

    Offscreen Voice #1: Please still board on time.

    COSTELLO: ...and United Airline 's national nerve center...

    Offscreen Voice #2: Our security lines here are currently flowing very smoothly.

    COSTELLO: ...where they keep track of 6,000 daily flights, scheduling, routing, catering, maintenance and the biggest variable of all...

    Unidentified Man: Weather is very, very much an impact on our operation.

    COSTELLO: Now combined with Continental Airlines , United starts its holiday planning during the summer.

    Ms. ALEX MARREN (Senior Vice President of Operations, United Airlines): Given the processes we have, we're prepared o handle whatever comes our way.

    COSTELLO: While 1.6 million Americans will take to the air this holiday week, the vast majority of travelers are going by car this Thanksgiving , some 40 million of us.

    RYAN: AAA roadside assistance. This is Ryan , how can I help you?

    COSTELLO: At the AAA call center in Denver , the holiday crush is on.

    Unidentified Woman: But the keys are with the vehicle, the doors are unlocked.

    COSTELLO: Eleven hundred service calls each day for dead batteries, flat tires and lots of lockouts.

    Ms. WAVE DREHER (AAA Colorado): They tend to lock their keys in their car more during Thanksgiving than other times of the year.

    Mr. TED MONTANYA: I am 25.

    COSTELLO: Starting on Black Friday , call volume jumps 30 percent. That's where Ted Montanya comes in.

    Mr. MONTANYA: I'd recommend bringing it in as soon as you can.

    COSTELLO: One of AAA 's 50,000 road assistance technicians on duty nationwide, trying to get cars back up and running again; some 350,000 cars between today and Sunday.

    Mr. MONTANYA: Sometimes we get lucky. That's all it is.

    COSTELLO: Back here at the airport, says that the airlines have a pretty good track record for getting people to their destinations on this day before Thanksgiving . Eighty percent -- generally 80 percent arrive on time. The worst is the Monday after Thanksgiving , that drops to 64 percent.

    Meredith: All right, Tom Costello , thank you very much . It is now 7:11, and with more, here's Matt.

    VIEIRA: All right, Meredith , thank you.

    MATT LAUER, co-host: Let's get more on how the roads are looking today. NBC 's Thanh Truong is at the Georgia Department of Transportation Navigator Center in Atlanta . It sounds impressive, Thanh . What goes on there?

    MATT LAUER, co-host: Well, Matt , look, Atlanta 's considered the crossroads of the South , and there's going to be a crush of drivers coming to and through here in the next several days; millions, in fact. And the folks here at the Navigation Center will be watching it all. They have a system of about 2,000 cameras to monitor traffic conditions. And if anything happens -- you can see some of those on the big screen -- if anything happens, they'll dispatch help and send crews out there as well. Thirty-nine -point-seven million Americans will be driving this Thanksgiving , so do the math. They say that more drivers on the road means more accidents. So please, do take your time getting to grandma's this Thanksgiving as well. And we're just getting word from AAA today that there's some concern that there could be possible major delays on the I-95 corridor because of a lot of construction there. So if you're going through -- going through there, please watch out.

    THANH TRUONG reporting: All right, Thanh Truong in Atlanta for us this morning. Thanh , thank you very much . It's now 12 after the hour. Here's Meredith .

    LAUER: Matt , thank you.

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: Thanksgiving travelers opting to take trains will not find relief from the crowds. NBC 's Mike Taibbi is at New York's Penn Station with more. Mike , good morning to you.

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: Good morning, Meredith . Yeah, it's been crowded here for hours. For Amtrak , the nation's largest rail carrier, this is going to be the busiest travel day of the busiest travel week of the year; some 127,000 people riding the rails probably on the way toward and probably past the weeklong record of 686,000 travelers that were set last year. Now, with every available railcar pressed into service, that means a few things. You should make a reservation because it's going to be almost impossible to just show up and get a ticket. Show up at the station early so you can pick up your ticket at a kiosk or a ticket window. And even though this is not air travel , there is a suggested luggage restriction of only two pieces of luggage. It's not going to be enforced. I can see now by looking around, a lot of people have more than that. Amtrak is going to be adding extra trains on the busiest part of the system, from the Northeast corridor to the Pacific Northwest . And it's also one more change, one more tweak. If you're riding a long-distance with a dining car , you can get a special Thanksgiving dinner , turkey with all the trimmings, in case you didn't get it at grandma's house or you really just love turkey. Meredith :

    MIKE TAIBBI reporting:

Interactive: Full-body scanners

Photos: Thanksgiving travel

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  1. Travelers line up at Denver International Airport on the day before the Thanksgiving holiday in Denver, Nov. 24. Millions of Americans took to the skies on Wednesday for the start of the Thanksgiving holiday but air travel flowed smoothly despite protests over new security procedures, including calls for passengers to boycott high-tech body scanners. Over 160,000 people were expected to move through the airport on Wednesday. (Rick Wilking / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A TSA agent keeps a watchful eye on travelers moving through security lines at Pittsburgh International Airport, Nov. 24. (Jeff Swensen / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Protesters against the Transportation Security Administration's screening procedures stand outside Terminal Four of the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Arizona, Nov. 24. (Rick Scuteri / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Waiting is a snooze

    A man yawns as he waits in a security screening line November 24, 2010 at LaGuardia airport in the Queens borough of New York City. Experts expect over 1.6 million people to fly over the Thanksgiving holiday this year, a 3.5% increase from last year. Airport officials are concerned that public protests against new security techniques such as National Opt-Out Day could further delay holiday travel. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Pre-holiday arrivals

    Long lines of cars form Nov. 24 as people come to pick others at the Los Angeles International Airport. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. On the way to grandma's

    Six-month-old Dahlia Louise Abelin is held by her mother Suzanne Ehlers, 37, of Washington, as they board the baby's first train for her first Thanksgiving at Grandma's, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010, on a New York City bound Amtrak train at Union Station in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Getting the TSA pat-down

    A Transportation Security Administration officer searches a wheel-chair bound traveler wearing a burqa at a security security check point on Nov. 24 at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. (Craig Lassig / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Security awaits

    Travelers wait to get through a security checkpoint Nov. 24 at Boston's Logan International Airport. (Michael Dwyer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A sign of protest

    A protester, right, demonstrating against the Transportation Security Administration's latest security procedures, gets questioned by a Washington Airports Authority officer, second right, and other officials on Nov. 24 at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington. The sign reads "Tyrants Sexually Assaulting Americans." (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Showing skin to make a point

    This image from on a blog shows the back of a man who protested against the enhanced TSA pat-downs Nov. 24 at the Salt Lake City airport. The man wore an Speedo-style bathing suit to avoid a pat-down. ( Back to slideshow navigation
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