The crowds at San Francisco International Airport were growing around American Airlines islands of self-serve, check-in kiosks Wednesday, and travelers were growing restless. Several computers kept freezing or shutting down, forcing people to wait in line — again — to try another machine or join a longer queue to get help from an actual human being.

“I’ve been waiting 37 minutes,” a man still nowhere near the front of the main check-in line complained.

Those around him simply shook their heads; in sympathy or empathy, it’s hard to say.

The hordes are just beginning to flood Bay Area airports, and they’re expected to surge this weekend and remain strong through the beginning of the year. San Francisco’s airport expects Friday to be the busiest day of its holiday season, and Oakland and San Jose’s airports started to see holiday crowds in their terminals in the middle of last week.

“We’re starting to ramp up,” said SFO spokesman Doug Yakel.

From Dec. 12 through the end of the year, the Bay Area’s busiest airport expects 2 million passengers to pass through its gates, which is about the same as last year.

Oakland International projects a 5 percent increase in fliers over the holiday period over last year, and Mineta San Jose International expects to handle 9 percent more travelers. Unlike most years, when the holiday season ends soon after New Year’s Day, San Jose’s busy days will extend until Jan. 11, after the college football championship game at Levi’s Stadium on Jan. 7.

Despite the crowds, San Francisco and Oakland airports expect to have sufficient parking throughout the holiday period. San Jose, where 500 parking slots are closed during an airport expansion, advises travelers to check online at flysanjose.com/parking or by phone at 408-441-5570.

Getting through the airport may be the dark side of the holiday season — lines to get tags for your luggage, lines to check your bags then more lines to get through security so you can sit around and wait for your flight, which may or may not be on time but is certain to be full, if not overbooked.

“I just look at it as a necessary hassle, a necessary evil,” said Matthew Price, 19, a Northwestern University student who was heading back to Evanston, Ill., after a weeklong entrepreneurial field trip to visit Bay Area tech companies.

Price waited five minutes to get to the front of a United Airlines check-in line only to be sent back to a kiosk to get a tag for his luggage. Then he got back in line.

“This is why I show up two-ish hours early,” he said.

Being prepared, and patient, is the secret to traveling at holiday time.

Kelly Williams, 40, of Dublin, traveling to Virginia with her 17-month-old twins, Avila and Grace, lined up several pieces of luggage and a stroller to transform a small alcove in the United check-in area into a makeshift playpen as she waited for her husband and 4-year-old son to park the car.

“This is our third trip to the East this year with all the kids,” Williams said, as the twins bounced around their temporary enclosure, giggling and eating snacks. “It’s crazy, but we’re getting used to the whole process.”

Even with the crush, most of those occupying the various queues Wednesday were on their best holiday behavior

Annabelle Joyce, 28, lives in Singapore and was waiting in line to catch a flight to Minneapolis, where her family is gathering Friday. The security line was moving slowly and, she called the journey for U.S. citizens through customs “depressingly long.”

“But, oh well,” she added. “So far, everything’s OK.”

For Kate Stowell, 31, and Chuck Stowell, 37, the trip from Hong Kong, where they live, to visit their families in Denver and Boise, Idaho, respectively, was already long and trying, and now they were standing in another line to get to their domestic flights.

“I understand why the lines are so long,” Kate Stowell said, “but they could be a little more efficient.”

Still, Chuck Stowell said, the hassles and waits would pay off with enjoyable family visits and Christmas celebrations.

“It’s always worth it,” he said. “It’s always great to be back.”

Holiday air travel tips

Arrive early: 90 minutes before domestic flights, two hours before international flights.

Check-in online or on your mobile phone and print your boarding pass at home or store it on your phone.

Check on the status of your flight before heading to the airport.

Don’t wrap gifts, whether checked or carried on, using tape or string since they may need to be unwrapped for additional screening. Gifts that need to travelwrapped should be placed in gift bags or boxes.

That holiday ham, fruitcake or your favorite Christmas cookies can go in carry-on luggage but anything spreadable or pourable, with more than 3.4 fluid ounces of liquid, must be checked or left behind.

Snow globes containing more than 3.4 fluid ounces must be placed in checked luggage.

Source: Airports, Transportation Security Administration

Michael Cabanatuan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: mcabanatuan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ctuan


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