The airlines ran about 75 percent on time over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, so the major carriers declared victory and claimed they had done a great service for the American traveling public. And since they didn’t find too many wailing families spending Thanksgiving sleeping in chairs at the airport, the major media ran a spate of things-went-better-than-expected stories.
But here’s a better way to look at things: Would you be satisfied if FedEx or U.P.S. delivered one out of every four of your parcels late? How eager would you be to eat at a restaurant that delivered one of your entrées late and cold when your party of four arrived for a meal? What if your dry cleaner returned only 75 percent of your clothes?
The brutal reality of holiday travel is that you run a good chance of being late, missing a connection, and otherwise being inconvenienced by the nation’s air-travel system. So if you’re planning to hit the road during the next month, when inexperienced leisure travelers will far outnumber grizzled business fliers, you need to plan tactically and do everything you can to control your destiny.
Fly early in the day
Government statistics show that flights scheduled to depart and arrive early in the day have the best on-time performance. But relative timeliness isn’t the only reason to fly early: If your selected flight is canceled, there are more flights remaining for you to get rebooked on. Conversely, book an evening flight and you’re subject to longer delays, and then you may not get another flight that day if your original one is canceled.
Do more online
Airlines offer online seat selection and check-in up to 24 hours before departure. Use it. Having your seat assignment and boarding pass before you leave for the airport eliminates two of the major stress factors of holiday travel. It will also allow you to bypass a third stress point — the checked-luggage line — because most carriers now offer fast-bag-drop stations for travelers who’ve used online check-in.
The government imposes a two-item limit for carry-on bags. But airlines reserve the right to force you to check one of the carry-ons on full flights. There’s a good chance holiday flights will be full, so consider traveling with just one carry-on bag.
Check fewer bags
The major carriers are now cracking down on excess-weight bags and charging up to $100 for luggage above the 50 pounds you get for free. Try shipping your belongings instead. U.P.S., FedEx, and specialty bag-handling firms offer cost-effective options. They’ll pick up your bag at your home or office and ship it directly to your hotel or final destination.
Ship your presents
Reduce your load further by sending your gifts by mail, an overnight courier, or a package service. It may cost a few dollars, but the stuff will get there, and you won’t have to carry it. And abandon all hope of taking gifts as carry-ons. First of all, they will count against your carry-on limit. Second, wrapped presents will be unwrapped and examined if their contents can’t be verified by the X-ray machines at security.
Win the ground war
Don’t risk missing your flight because of a ground delay. Roads to, from, and inside the airport and airport parking lots are clogged with traffic during the holidays, so allow more time than usual. And remember: In-airport lots will be filled to overflowing, so use an off-airport private lot instead. All offer shuttle service directly to departure terminals; many offer perks like car washes and oil changes. Alternatively, take a car service or taxi to the airport. And trust me on this: Do not rely on friends or family for transportation. The holiday season is stressful enough. Why dump the extra grief of an airport run on anyone — especially people you care about?
Prepare for the inevitable delays
The long lines — and all the extra time you’ll have if everything goes swiftly — are less annoying if you’re prepared. Bring plenty to read and lots of music and videos. If you’re traveling with kids, make sure you’ve got a supply of games, toys, and snacks. If you’re traveling with infants, have more than enough diapers and food. You won’t find this kind of stuff at most airport shops. And accept the fact that there may be unexpected security delays and diversions: Abrupt closures of terminals or entire airports for real or imagined security breaches have been a regular occurrence during the past several Christmas seasons.
No one likes airline food, so why complain about the carriers’ not giving it away anymore? Instead, pack a sandwich, fruit, and several bags of nuts, or a supply of energy or protein bars. And don’t scrimp on water. Airline travel is dehydrating, and you should drink at least eight ounces of water for every hour of flying. You can’t carry water through security, so pick up several bottles from the shops inside the “sterile” area beyond the screening checkpoints. Do not assume you’ll get all the beverages you need in-flight. Flight attendants won’t come down the aisles often enough to suit your needs.
Hide out in the club
If you’ve got a long layover between flights or are faced with an unexpected delay, consider joining an airline’s club network. The clubs are relatively quiet oases in the maelstrom of airports during the holiday season, and most airlines sell day passes for about $50. Your sanity is worth the relatively small investment.
The fine print
Take a psychic tip from a 30-year veteran of the road: Leave your emotional baggage behind. It won’t clear security anyway. It may sound silly, but if you come to a flight with a positive mind-set, your chances of having a good experience improve. Come to the airport stressed and strung out and you’re almost sure to have a bad flight.