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Holiday Travel Outlook

Thanksgiving is traditionally the heaviest travel weekend of the year, with the Sunday after Thanksgiving taking honors for the heaviest travel day bar none. For the first time, Thanksgiving travel volume will exceed pre-9/11 levels, according to AAA’s annual turkey weekend prognostication.

Here are the numbers from AAA: 37.2 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home this holiday, a 3.1 percent increase from last year.

Meanwhile, the Air Transport Association puts the number of travelers taking to the air over the long weekend at 16.3 million, up 2.5 percent from last year and reaching a new peak even as compared to Thanksgiving 2000.

As it turns out, Thanksgiving Day proper is one of the quietest travel days of the year, especially at the airport. Save for the earliest flights, airports are eerily empty. While many people do drive on Thanksgiving morning, a few hours into the day, the roads clear out as well.

Fares Down, Fuel Up; Strikes Now Unlikely
The surge in holiday travel is due in part to the lowest airfares in over five years. According to the Business Travel Monitor, airfares are down about ten percent from 2003, and down 25 percent from fall 2000, the industry’s peak year to date.

Gas prices remain high, but as the average holiday traveler drives 200 miles or less to their destination, the additional cost of fuel is not enough to deter most travelers.

One potentially disastrous scenario seems to have been averted when United and US Airways skirted a rumored wildcat strike by flight attendants.

Best and Worst Days to Travel over Thanksgiving:
Worst days: November 24, 28
Best days: November 22, 23, 27, 30
Many travelers get a head start on the long weekend, and most regions see roads start to fill up as early as Tuesday morning. Most travelers wait until midday Wednesday to beat it from work and head for home for the holidays, and that’s when roads, and especially airports, get clogged.

Thanksgiving driving: Note that nearly as many people are on the roads on Thanksgiving Day as on Wednesday evening. However, when you add holiday travelers to the Wednesday evening commute, it’s a very busy afternoon and evening, and an unusually long rush hour that can start at lunchtime and continue well into the evening. Sunday night is plain brutal.

Looking Ahead
Both Christmas and New Year’s fall on a Saturday this year, which could result in the most congested holiday travel in recent memory. When the holidays fall on a weekday, you find that travel is more dispersed over several days. For example, if New Year’s is on a Tuesday, many travelers will take a long weekend, and leave work on the previous Thursday or Friday; others will wait until Saturday, etc. On their return trip, some might return in time for a short workweek, while others vacation until the following weekend. You see lots of small peaks, but not always one brutal day.

That could be different this year. With both holidays on a Saturday, we will most likely see folks leaving work on Thursday midday, or perhaps Friday, creating a crush of travel late in both holiday workweeks. Additionally, the subsequent Sunday night and Monday morning will see the same. I predict that Sunday, January 2 will be an extremely difficult day for travel, both for booking and for just moving around.

Best days: December 20, 21, 29
Worst Days: December 24, 27, 31, January 2, 3
Forewarned is forearmed; plan accordingly!

One additional note: the labor détente mentioned above may be short-lived; travelers may want to book away from the airlines most affected by bankruptcy and labor issues, purchase travel insurance, or both. No matter when you are traveling, it is always good to know your options for switching flights, airlines, or even airports if your flight is cancelled for any reason.

· Be prepared for more than the usual slowdowns at security. Even though frequent travelers see new security measures as old news, folks who fly rarely, and have not done so for a few years, may be caught off guard.

· Gas up the night before you travel; no one leaves enough time for buying gas on the way to the airport.

· Leave for the airport early. Note that I don't say "Get to the airport early." There's a lot more to worry about on this side of the security checkpoint.

· Prepare for non-flight related ground delays. Forget delayed flights; more people miss on-time flights due to traffic problems, full parking lots, long check-in and security lines and the like. Anticipate these problems by checking traffic reports, airport websites, and, once again, budgeting more time.

· Travel on Saturdays. In almost every case this year, travel on Saturday will be slightly less brutal than on Sunday.

· Investigate your frequent flyer options to get better (and better guaranteed) seats.

· Scale back on carry-ons. Overhead bins are going to be full, and you could end up being forced to check bags at the door of the plane. Try to limit yourself to one carry-on.

· Bring diversions. Take along work, books, magazines, a CD player, some healthy snacks -- whatever you need to get through delays. This goes double when traveling with kids.

· Keep your cool. Airline employees have considerable power over your well-being. Unfortunately many enjoy wielding it against you (see Fewer Airline Passengers, but More-Crowded Planes from the New York Times in 2003 for an unsavory display of one flight attendant's obvious contempt for his passengers), and few respond well to anger.

· Have phone numbers for everything: your hotel, your car rental agency, your airline, friends at your destination. Directory assistance is expensive, whether from your cell, a phone booth, or from home.

· Check flight status repeatedly. Know your airline's 800 number as well as your flight numbers and exact times

· See the Air Traffic Control System Command Center Real-time Airport Status site to obtain the latest delay information by airport.

· When traveling on an E-ticket, carry a printout of your itinerary from your travel agent, airline, or online booking site.

· Fly in the morning and late at night. Delays are far less likely for morning flights, and airports usually unclog as the afternoon and evening peak passes.

· Choose nonstop flights. The worst, most brutal delays occur in connecting airports, where you have no home, friends or family to retreat to.

· For itineraries with connections, it is best if you can muscle your flight path so that connections are in places less likely to experience delays -- specifically, airports in warmer climates.

· Give your cell phone a full charge, and write down or program the phone number of your airline so you can call easily as your flight time approaches.

· If you're leaving pets at home, and you haven't made kennel reservations yet, do so straight away.

To discuss this and other Traveler's Ed articles, visit the Traveler's Ed Message Board.

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler

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