Larry Downing  /  Reuters file
Christmas Eve air travelers wait in line to pass through airport security checkpoint at Reagan National Airport outside the Nation's Capitol in Arlington, Virginia, December 24, 2004.
By Features editor
updated 11/30/2005 6:15:10 PM ET 2005-11-30T23:15:10

With travel volume back up to pre-9/11 levels, constriction in the airline business, and Christmas and New Year's falling on Sunday this year, the 2005-06 holiday travel season could be one of the most challenging to date. Add in the fact that airline ticket prices are up 15 percent from last year and it looks like this holiday season will not only mean stress on your psyche, but on your wallet as well.

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The following tips offer some variations on the usual holiday tip list, with some twists and warnings peculiar to this year's holiday travel stretch.

Know this year's peak travel dates
At Thanksgiving, Wednesday is the critical outbound "avoid" day as a rule. Traveling on Thanksgiving day proper is often a breeze and more affordable; there are often cut-rate airfare deals on Thanksgiving day, like the $1 fares that were popular a few years back.

On the return, Friday morning isn't bad at all, with each successive day getting a little busier, more difficult and more expensive through Sunday evening. The bottom line: If you are looking for a deal, you won't find one on the peak travel days. Travel off-peak whenever possible.

Slideshow: 2005 Holiday Highlights With both Christmas and New Year's falling on Sunday this year, the Friday before and the Monday after each holiday will be truly gnarly travel days, as travel will be concentrated on the bookends of a single long weekend in a way that would not occur when the holidays are mid-week.

Your best bets are to travel as early as possible in the week before the Christmas holiday, particularly from the 19th to the 21st, and as late as possible in the week following the New Year's holiday. In the week between Christmas and New Year's, traveling midweek is your best bet, with Wednesday the 28th shaping up as the best of the lot.

Book early ...
... and beware of changing route maps and flight frequency. One result of the wave of airlines headed for, in, or just out of bankruptcy is the constriction of schedules of most of the major airlines. US Airways cut 16 percent of its flights, Northwest and American have made several reductions, and Delta is planning a reduction on domestic routes by 15-20 percent as part of a significant schedule change that takes effect December 1.

Meanwhile, load factors (the measure of how full a plane is) have been relatively high the past few months. The combination of fewer flights (and so fewer seats) and more travelers will have several effects that will be felt by the average traveler: With demand high and supply decreasing, prices will trend higher for the "best" flights at the most popular times, seats will sell out faster, and the hassles of checking in for and boarding these flights will increase.

As a result, this year it may be critical to book early not only to get the best prices, but also if you require very specific travel dates or times. With the current state of the airline industry, it is never too early to book your holiday travel flights. Those who hold out in hopes of a late-breaking sale are likely to get left out in the cold or pay a very steep price for their procrastination.

On the up side, with fewer planes on the tarmac, it is possible that on-time performance will improve, but don't hold your breath on that one; recent on-time performance data isn't stellar, and it might be a stretch to expect it to improve during the holiday season.

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Shop around
Whether you're using booking sites, bid or auction sites, or the latest trend, aggregator sites, comparison shopping has never been easier than it is right now. During peak travel season, casting the net as wide as possible will help you understand all of your options.

For many travelers, price isn't the only or even the most important factor, especially during the holidays. Thoughtful, deliberate use of the "search adjacent days or airports" features found on many Web sites may also surrender greatly improved fares and travel times.

Check alternate airports
This is pretty standard, but at this time of year it can really make a difference. At no time can the alternate airport gambit pay off better than during the holiday crush. You can score on almost every front -- parking, rental cars, traffic to and from, nearby hotels -- and save on both time and money, and might even have a more pleasant experience.

For example, a recent flight to Hanscom airport outside Boston dropped me right into Thoreau and Minuteman country very near the peak foliage season, offering a very different experience than flying into Logan. Upon my return, the car rental agent informed me that my flight may be running late, and let me hold onto the car keys until we were sure that the flight would take off, with no additional fee. Only at a small airport can you get that kind of treatment.

Plot connections carefully
When booking flights, check your search results carefully for sufficient time during layovers, and build in some time for flight delays and weather woes. Particularly during the winter months, peak travel times often bring peak travel delays, and your connection is more likely to be jeopardized. Avoiding really tight connections may save you a sprint through the terminal at least, and a really nasty stranding at worst. Also, it is best if you can muscle your flight path into position so that connections are in places less likely to experience delays -- specifically, airports in warmer climates.

Leave early
During peak travel times, much of the trouble you'll face lies on this side of the security check-in, from traffic jams and full parking lots to absent shuttles and long lines. Rather than striving to "arrive at the airport early," you may want to try to "leave for the airport early" to anticipate all the peripheral delays you may encounter.

Travel light to save hassle and money
Packing light is always a good idea at peak travel times, but this year it could save you money, as many airlines have decreased luggage weight allowances on domestic flights to 50 pounds per person. More significantly, while some luggage limits have been sporadically enforced in the past, all indications say that you will be charged for overages this year as the airlines try to improve their bottom line whenever they can. If you are traveling to warm weather destinations, and won't be packing a lot of heavy clothes, consider packing light enough to fit all your stuff into a single carry-on.

Finally, overhead bins are going to be full, and you could end up being forced to check bags at the door of the plane.

Use the Web for more than just booking
The latest self-service developments in online travel can be tremendous time-savers during peak travel times. Whenever possible, print your boarding passes at home, or use check-in kiosks. These services are no longer restricted to the airport, and can be found in hotels and other places in increasing numbers.

Think about doing your Christmas shopping online and having your gifts shipped to your destination. This will cut down on luggage and the risk of them getting lost.

Travel early or late in the day
As a rule, airports are least congested at times when normal human beings would rather be at home or even asleep. Delays are far less likely for morning flights, and airports usually unclog as the afternoon and evening peak passes.

A couple caveats: Staffing can be spotty for really early flights, so although your flight is highly likely to be ready to leave on time, check-in may take a bit, along with other personnel-dependent steps like riding shuttle buses.

Consider package deals
Peak travel periods can be the best time to buy package deals, even for folks who would never buy one, as the bundled pricing offered by packages can be very competitive, even (or especially) at times of high demand. I'm traveling on a package over Thanksgiving, and am almost stunned at the offer; you can barely afford to stay home at these prices.

More tips: 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.

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

*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, 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, from 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.

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

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

*Don't overpack even checked luggage; overstuffed bags that must be opened for a security check are much harder to repack.

*Do not wrap gifts, especially if you intend to carry them on the plane. Even in checked baggage, there is a strong chance they will be unwrapped for inspection by security personnel. Consider gift bags instead of wrapping paper this holiday season -- you can easily remove the items from their bags if required and you don't have to do a last-minute wrapping job at your destination.

*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, do so right away. If Fido is coming along, check out our article on Traveling with Pets.

Put it all together
Travel during the holiday is the time to lay all your travel savvy on the line. For example, if you: purchase a package deal in one click of the mouse print out your boarding pass at home
leave early enough not to sweat the small stuff travel light enough not to have to check any bags proceed directly to and through security arrive at the gate on time and at ease and nail your connections ...

You might actually enjoy traveling this season!

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