By Herb Weisbaum
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/29/2006 5:42:44 PM ET 2006-05-29T21:42:44

The busy summer travel season is under way. If you are flying to your vacation destination, you need to be prepared for what could be a stressful experience. The airports will be crowded and the planes will be packed.  Here are some tips to help you avoid unnecessary hassles.

1. Reconfirm your plane reservation
You don’t want any nasty surprises at the airport, so about two weeks before your flight, call or go online to make sure the airline’s computer shows you holding a ticket for the flight you booked. You also want to verify the flight schedule.

If there has been a change, the airline should have notified you, but that doesn’t always happen. It’s a good idea to double-check the departure time two to three days before your flight. You also want to reconfirm your return flight 24 to 48 hours ahead of time. Make sure the airline has a phone number for you at your destination — the hotel or your cell phone — so they can call if there are any last minute changes.

2. Check in online
Many airlines let you go online 24 hours in advance to print your boarding pass at home or work. The benefit here is obvious — there’s one less thing to do at the airport. If you have bags, you can check them at curbside. If not, you can skip the line and go right to the gate.

3. Get there early
Cut it too close and you may miss your flight or be denied boarding. For domestic flights you want to be there at the airport at least 90 minutes early. If you’re going to park a car or if it’s an international flight give yourself at least two hours. Miss your flight this summer and there’s a good chance you won’t be able to get on the next flight or even the flight after that, because the planes will be full.

Keep in mind — your reservation and seat assignment on a domestic flight can be canceled if you are not checked in and at the gate at least 20 minutes prior to departure. The rules are different for international flights.

Airlines are allowed to overbook their flights. This summer your chances of getting bumped are greater than ever. When the airline needs to deny boarding to ticketed passengers, it goes by check-in time. Those who show up last are the first to get bumped.

4. Checked baggage restrictions
Most airlines will not accept checked baggage less than 30 minutes prior to a domestic flight. “If your bags are not on that flight, you’re not on that flight,” warns Terry Trippler of CheapSeats.com. “So you could miss your flight by checking your bags too late.”

Because of soaring fuel costs, airlines are strictly enforcing their baggage rules. For most domestic flights you are allowed two checked bags up to 50 pounds each. If any bag is over the weight limit, you’ll get hit with a fee — normally $25 for a bag 51 to 70 pounds. Extra bags will cost you about $80 each.

5. Lost baggage
The airlines want you and your baggage to arrive together, and 99 percent of the time the system works. But that 1 percent error rate means more than 3.5 million bags will be lost or delayed this year. So you need to plan for the worst. Terry Trippler suggests taking two small bags — with a complete change of clothing in each — rather than one big bag.  Remember, any essentials — such as medicines — should always be in your carry-on.

6. Dealing with delays and cancellations
If your flight is delayed, stay at the gate until a new departure time is officially announced and posted. Even then don’t go too far. Things can change — a repair can go more quickly than expected, a storm system can move out faster than anticipated. You won’t hear update announcements if you’re not there.

If your flight is cancelled, get in line for rebooking and get on your cell phone. You might have a better chance of getting rebooked by calling the airline’s reservation line. Don’t be afraid to ask if you can get a seat on another airline’s flight that leaves sooner.

7. Rental cars
If you’re flying, there’s a good chance you’ve booked a rental car. To avoid costly surprises, you need to know the rules of the road. Rental car companies base their charges on a 24-hour period. So if you pick up the car at 3 p.m. on Saturday and return it at or before 3 p.m. on Sunday, you’ve rented it for one day. Return it at 3:01 p.m. on Sunday and your rental is now more than a day. Depending on the company, you could be charged for two days or for an extra hour — which can be as much as a third of the daily rate. Find out before you leave the lot if there is any grace period for a late return. If you booked the car at the cheaper weekly rate and bring it back early, expect to pay the higher daily rate.

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