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Much-needed help for holiday travelers

Has it been awhile since you've taken to the friendly skies? If you're planning on flying over the holidays, prepare for rules, fees and other surprises that weren't there last time you took off.
Image: Travel routes cut
Kim Carney /

As summer winds down, the bad news about air travel just keeps piling up.

Airlines are announcing system-wide route cuts while hiking fees for everything from checking bags to serving snacks and water. And while fuel prices are finally dipping, airfares are not — nor are the irritations associated with flying.

It's enough to make you want to stay home. In fact, the major auto clubs, the airline trade groups — even the guys at my corner fruit stand — are predicting more folks than ever will be doing just that this Labor Day weekend. Compared to the last year's three-day holiday weekend, AAA expects just under a one percent decline in trips at least 50 miles from home. The Air Transport of Association of America projects air travel will be down by 5.7 percent. And the fruit stand guys? They’re bringing in extra loads of watermelon, cherries and bananas for the backyard picnic gang.

What’s next?
Looking ahead, will the “sit-tight” summer morph into the “just-stay-home” holiday season?

I don't think so. That all-ages squirt-gun war may have been a novel substitute for the traditional summer's-end beach weekend, but grandma won't put up with that when Thanksgiving and the December holidays roll around.

And neither should you.

So borrow one of your kid's just-sharpened back-to-school pencils. Rip a few sheets of paper out of that brand new Batman three-ring binder. Now that summer is about over, it’s time to figure out how to be a well-mannered traveler who actually gets to go somewhere.

Poke around online
If you have your heart set on traveling during the Thanksgiving or December holidays, it’s time to buckle down and get to work.

Get airfare e-mail alerts: You can unsubscribe from the Web sites later, but this will allow you to recognize and pounce on a good (or at least acceptable) fare when you see it.

Study airport Web sites: News about city-specific fare sales can “break” on airport Web sites, many of which now have their own targeted airfare search widgets. Some airports also compile fare deals for their market and e-mail the list to subscribers. Pittsburgh International Airport, for example, sends its list out to 35,000 people each week. And don’t limit yourself to your home airport Web site; be sure to check for deals at your destination airport's Web site, too.

Join airline mileage programs: You may never fly enough to earn that free ticket, but last-minute sales and special offers often get mailed only to members of an airline’s frequent flier program. Even if you travel once or twice a year, signing up can be fruitful.

Go early: Are you having a tough time finding fair fares? Consider celebrating a holiday before or after the official day and fly on Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's Day, when prices can dip significantly. (Tip: Blackout days for frequent flier tickets often do not apply to actual holidays.)

Airports lending a hand
According to the Air Transport Association (ATA), U.S. airlines lost more than $2.8 billion in the first half of 2008. Even with the dip in fuel prices, the second half of the year doesn’t look much brighter. That’s why many carriers have announced deep route cuts for some cities and dropped service to others entirely.

Lost routes mean less income for airports, which get most of their revenue from airline landing fees and terminal usage. Raising those fees can squeeze carriers out of a market, so instead many airports are digging deep. In addition to canceling or delaying construction projects, some airports are waiving or reducing landing fees and teaming up with other airports and city, state or government agencies to offer airlines everything from marketing assistance to cash incentives to stick around.

Those strategies help airports keep clients, but, more importantly, help travelers by keeping fares down.

Every bit helps
In addition to posting airfare specials, many airports are trying to help travelers with at-the-airport discounts and other freebies. For example, right now, Kansas City International Airport is offering a coupon for a free day of parking. And as the holidays get closer, Minneapolis-St. Paul International, San Francisco International and others will once again hand out coupon books filled with discounts at airport restaurants and shops.

Many smaller airports may soon follow the lead of Alabama’s Mobile Regional Airport. There, travelers enrolled in the free “Passport Program” get one point for each trip they begin at the airport. Points can then be exchanged for everything from a day pass at the airport’s executive club lounge (8 points) to a one-year AAA auto club membership (41 points) to discounts on cruises. The airport also has its own shuttle van service to ensure travelers won't be stranded when flights arrive behind schedule.

Already have your holiday ticket?
Good for you. But don’t relax just yet: you’ll need to stay on your toes before you head to the airport. Here are three “R’s” to remember:

Reconfirm:  Many airline route cuts and cancellations kick in after Labor Day while others will roll out this fall. There's a good chance your holiday flight schedule will change at least once. (My airline has already changed my December schedule three times!) Don’t wait for the airline to call you about a schedule change. Put a few “just checking” reminders in your calendar and reconfirm one more time on the day of your flight.

Repack:  Over the summer, most major airlines added new or increased fees for checked bags. Those fees vary from airline to airline and may come as an expensive shock to folks who haven’t flown anywhere since last spring. Before you start choosing holiday outfits or shopping for gifts to pack in your suitcase, check your airline’s Web site for rules and fees for checking sports equipment, oversized items and pets.

Reconsider: Not your trip, but how you’ll get to and from the airport. To make up for lost revenue, many airports and off-airport lots hiked parking fees over the summer. Do the math to see if it makes sense to leave the car at home.

If so, consider taking public transportation, a shuttle van or a cab. Ask about discounts: many shuttle van services offer significant discounts for second or third passengers. And many appointment-only town car services charge no more than cabs and offer a smoother, more reliable ride.

Another option is talking to your neighbors. Surely you’re not the only one headed to the airport the day before Thanksgiving — perhaps you can carpool or hitch a ride. Or plan ahead to share a cab or a town car to the airport.  I did this once with a neighbor who waved away my share of the fare in what turned out to be a swanky limousine ride to the airport. He said his boss was picking up the tab.

Now that’s a new travel rule I can get used to.

Harriet Baskas writes's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for