By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/17/2010 4:43:48 PM ET 2010-11-17T21:43:48

Heading to the airport on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Curt Harler has a game plan perfectly suited for the nation’s most football-centric holiday.

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“It’s like when it’s fourth and short yardage and you know there’s going to be a big pile-up right in the center,” said the freelance writer from Strongsville, Ohio. “You just dive in and do your best.”

Needless to say, Harler will have plenty of company. Between crowded airports, packed planes and a slew of new, potentially confusing security initiatives, this holiday travel season may be like a battle for inches on the gridiron, but with no officials to blow the whistle signaling an end to the play.

Related: Are airport X-ray scanners harmful?

Crowded airports, packed planes
According to the Air Transport Association, 24 million people will fly over the 12-day holiday period (Nov. 19–30), an increase of 3.5 percent over last year. The busiest day is expected to be Sunday, Nov. 28, followed by Monday, Nov. 29; Friday, Nov. 19, and Wednesday, Nov. 24.

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It’s more than just the number of people, suggests Dallas Foard, a frequent business traveler from Mechanicville, N.Y., who’ll be braving the crowds on the Monday after Thanksgiving. “It’s the high volume of what I like to refer to as ‘amateur travelers’,” he said. “The people who either travel rarely, or even worse, the first-time fliers. It’s the same people who try to take a 32-ounce bottle of shampoo through security.”

Interactive: Calculating the cost of getting to Grandma’s (on this page)

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com. “You have pent-up travel demand from people who didn’t travel last year and three or four years of airlines retracting into their hubs. There are more people chasing fewer seats.”

In fact, the American Transport Association (ATA) recently reported that the U.S. airline industry shrank by 6.9 percent last year, the largest single-year drop since 1942. And while most carriers have been ratcheting their capacity back up recently, they’re not keeping up with the concurrent growth in demand. In September, for example, the nation’s nine largest airlines expanded capacity by 4.8 percent while traffic was up 6.3 percent.

The disparity is one reason ATA expects load factors to approach 90 percent on the busiest days of the holiday period. By that reckoning, the usual holiday fourth-down play may be even tougher this year. To avoid getting stuffed in the back field, a good game plan is a must.

Before you go
One of the biggest changes holiday travelers may face this year is Secure Flight, a TSA  program designed to prevent people on the government’s No Fly list from boarding airplanes.

As of Nov. 1, potential travelers can no longer print out boarding passes unless their reservation includes their gender, date of birth and name as it appears on their photo ID. According to TSA, small differences in your name — an initial vs. a middle name, for example — will be OK. Nicknames, on the other hand — e.g., Peggy for Margaret — may cause problems.

Most carriers began requiring the information months before the deadline, but if you bought your ticket during the summer or earlier, contact your airline to ensure they have the correct information. You may also be able to do it at the airport, although that’s not recommended. “If you can’t print out your boarding pass because it doesn’t have your birthdate or your Miss or Mrs., you’re going to have to go over to the ticket counter,” said Tom Parsons of BestFares.com. “If you like lines, then by all means, do that.”

Even if your personal information is up-to-date, Parsons recommends checking back with your airline on a regular basis to monitor any flight changes. “Five or ten minutes isn’t a big deal,” he said, “but when they move it by an hour or more and you’ve given yourself an hour and a half to get to the airport, you may not be going anywhere.”

That’s a fate Chuck Salem, an event planner from Johnstown, Pa., is hoping to avoid. Planning to catch a cruise out of Fort Lauderdale on Friday morning, he booked a Thursday-night flight out of Pittsburgh on AirTran, only to have it canceled last week. Rebooked on an early-Friday flight, he was forced to book a hotel room near the airport and is now keeping his fingers crossed: “If my flight departs on time, I make my cruise. If I’m late by more than 30 minutes, I miss it.”

Slideshow: Holiday Travel (on this page)

The takeaway, says George Hobica of AirfareWatchdog.com, is to be prepared but flexible: “More people will be flying this year than last year; there are new security procedures, and you never know if a machine is going to break down or someone in line is going to have a problem. The lesson is get to the airport early, early, early.”

At the airport
Brace yourself: Although last month’s terror attempts targeted cargo rather than passenger planes, travelers should be prepared for heightened security at the nation’s airports. “Security is going to be very much in your face,” said Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo.com. “You’ll be reminded by loudspeaker every few minutes about what security level we’re at, what to do with your liquids and jackets; it’s going to be an unusually busy, energy-driven experience.”

For infrequent travelers, this holiday may provide their first, pardon the pun, exposure to TSA’s expanding array of full-body-imaging machines. (TSA prefers the term “advanced imaging technology,” which hasn’t stopped critics from referring to them as “digital strip search” machines.) As of last month, there were 317 of the machines in place at 65 airports, with an estimated 450 expected to be in place by the end of the year.

Video: TSA battles image problem over body scanner (on this page)

While TSA maintains that most fliers are OK with the machines, complaints from pilots, passengers and civil rights groups are growing. Two passenger rights groups are urging air travelers to take part in a national opt-out day on Nov. 24 by refusing to go through the full-body scanners and insisting that any pat down they receive as a result take place in full view of other passengers.

The procedure requires passengers to remove everything from their pockets, not just metal items. Some parents have voiced objections at the prospect of screeners viewing near-naked images of their children.

Related: U.S. officials defend stepped-up airport security
Related: Parents angry about airport security frisking kids

According to TSA, full-body screening is still optional. However, the price for opting out is opting in to the agency’s recently announced enhanced pat-down procedure, which, technically speaking, hardly involves patting at all. Instead, TSA agents will slide their hands up and down passengers’ bodies coming in direct contact with their breasts, buttocks and groin areas.

Related: Airport pat downs get more personal

“You either do the full-body screening procedure or you get a pretty serious feel-up job,” said Steve Danishek, a Seattle-based travel consultant. “Either way, it’s going to slow things down.”

Interactive: Full-body scanners (on this page)

All of which will only exacerbate the usual challenges of getting from curbside to airside. “There’s no doubt it’s going to be a slower, less calm experience,” said Saglie of Travelzoo.com. “Even now, there are people who are unfamiliar with the rules about removing their shoes and carrying liquids.”

For others, the issue will be the rampant proliferation of add-on fees for checked bags (most airlines except Southwest and JetBlue), carry-on bags (Spirit) and bags that don’t conform to the airlines’ increasingly enforced size constraints. “You’re going to see a lot of people trying to carry on bags to avoid those $25 fees,” said Seaney. “The baggage police are going to be out in force.”

Last-minute savings
Is it all worth it? An estimated 24 million Americans think so — including, it seems, some who still haven’t bought their tickets. If you’re among the latter, it should go without saying that time is running out. “If you’re still shopping,” said Seaney, “go ahead and add 10 bucks to your virtual ticket for every day you wait.”

Still, there are ways to minimize the pain:

Skip the surcharges: All five legacy carriers now charge premiums to travel during Thanksgiving (and the latter half of December). The prices are baked into the fare, so you won’t see them, but you’ll pay an extra $30 to fly on Sunday, Nov. 28 or Monday, Nov. 29 vs. $10 on most other days and zero on Thanksgiving Day.

Related: New holiday travel tradition: hefty surcharges

Avoid the add-on fees: While elite members of most airline loyalty programs don’t pay for checked luggage, at least two airlines (Delta and Continental) have started offering similar perks to travelers who buy their tickets with co-branded credit cards. Note, though, that the cards have annual fees of $85–$95, which means it’ll take a couple of trips to break even.

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Shift your schedule: Looking for a quick Thanksgiving getaway? If your schedule allows, avoid the ever-popular and always-expensive Wednesday through Sunday routine. “You’ll pay anywhere from $100 to $200 less per person if you can fly Monday through Friday,” said Parsons.

The real key, of course, is to focus on the goal line — getting where you’re going and back again — and have a game plan to reach it. Think like a business traveler, said Saglie, and be ready to fend for yourself. Scope out the security lines, said Harler, and avoid the ones with large groups, small children and other infrequent travelers. Most of all, be prepared for crowds, confusion and unforeseen complications.

That’s what Chuck Salem will be doing as he tries to get from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale next Friday: “Am I looking forward to the experience? No! Do I think it will all go off without a hitch? Absolutely not!”

Will that stop him from going? Not a chance.

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail .

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Interactive: Calculating the cost of getting to Grandma’s

Ahhh, Thanksgiving. We hop in the car or head to the airport; we travel cross-town or across the country, and we do it all during one of the busiest travel periods of the year.

Video: Skies, roads to be stuffed for Thanksgiving

Photos: Holiday Travel

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  1. (Joe Heller / The Green Bay Press-Gazette, Politicalcartoons.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. (Jimmy Margulies / The New Jersey Record, Politicalcartoons.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. (Nate Beeler / The Washington Examiner, Politicalcartoons.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. (Adam Zyglis / The Buffalo News, Politicalcartoons.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. (Joe Heller / The Green Bay Press-Gazette, Politicalcartoons.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. (Andy Singer / No Exit, Politicalcartoons.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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