If you’re traveling this weekend in the U.S., best of luck to you! Here is my nickel’s worth of free advice as you prepare to depart along with 40 million other Americans for the Thanksgiving holiday (fortunately they won’t all be flying).
- Give yourself lots of time. Wednesday and Sunday are amateur days. Everyone else will slow you down. Flights instead of being 80% full are 100% full (that alone would be a 25% increase in people) and frequent travelers are replaced by occasional travelers who don’t know the drill as well. Be patient, across the whole process — getting to the airport, parking (if that’s your thing), clearing security, boarding while other passengers try to sneak bags into the overhead bins on that wouldn’t fit in a shipping container.
- Avoid checking bags. That’s counterintuitive since flights are full and overhead space is scarce, but it’s one less thing to get messed up — and you’re much more flexible changing plans and routings without worrying about bags (e.g. you might even fly into a different nearby airport without your bags being routed somewhere else).
- That reinforces giving yourself lots of time. You want to use whatever privileges you have — elite status, co-branded credit card holder — to board early. You don’t need to be first, or even 20th, you just need not to be last. The goal isn’t to sit on the plane the longest, it’s not to be in the final stream of passengers being asked to gate check their bag.
- Be proactive. If things look like they’re going south, ask the airline to protect you on a different set of flights. Not all will, but if an agent tells you they can’t you might try another agent. (American Airlines for instance usually won’t — but I’ve managed to get agents to set up alternate flights in a reservation and not reissue the tickets until I’m sure I need those flights.)
- Avoid long lines and long hold times, look for everyone’s help at once. If you’re at the airport, and find yourself in the customer service line for rebooking, call the airline on your phone while you wait — you may get rebooked before you hit the front of the line. Hold times may be long, elite status helps here. And ditching the customer service line for the airline’s club is often the best move (I’ve been told by Alaska Airlines club agents that they can’t do ticketing due to union rules, but this applies with other US airlines). Agents are friendlier and lines are shorter in the club.
- Find alternate routings. When things start to look like your flights won’t go according to plan, be armed with alternatives to suggest to agents rather than just taking whatever is offered (or being told nothing is available) — you may be willing to fly more circuitously than an agent expects or think more creatively (or take an airport overnight along the way if you have to, which an agent may not suggest since they won’t be authorized to cover your enroute hotel stay). A good free place to search for airline space (on airlines other than American) is FlightStats.com because it doesn’t just show schedules but also real-time availability. Expertflyer.com, a pay site, is also a good tool (and includes availability on American).
- Know when to bail. If you’re facing significant delays and cancellation due to weather, other people at your connecting points are as well, and airport hotels will fill up (and certainly get increasingly expensive as fewer and fewer rooms remain). Consider bailing early, grabbing a room, and waiting it out… rather than sleeping in the airport.
- There are extra costs along the way and sometimes you just have to eat them. Airlines usually won't help with expenses when the cause of delays or interruptions is weather. But your credit card company might. Save receipts — for hotels, extra ground transportation, even meals — and after your trip see whether the card you used to purchase tickets will let you submit a claim for trip delay or baggage coverage.
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