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Travel outlook: Bumpy with chance of bacteria

Coordinating holiday plans with friends and family is hard enough, but this year there are business headlines and health news we must factor into our decisions.
Image: Delayed travelers
Coordinating holiday plans with friends and family is hard enough, but this year there are a host of other issues travelers need to deal with.M. Spencer Green / AP

As our memories of summer vacations fade, it’s time to start making travel plans for the holidays.

Coordinating schedules with friends, family and the airlines is hard enough, but this year there are business headlines and health news we must factor into our decisions.

Flight delays down, lost bags up
Statistics released by the Transportation Department earlier this month show complaints about lost luggage inched higher in August while airlines showed a slight improvement in on-time arrivals.

Airlines may be having an easier time getting from here to there because fewer people are flying and there are fewer jets in the air. According to a report released by the Brookings Institution, however, delays will most certainly get worse — especially in the 26 metropolitan hubs that serve about 75 percent of all domestic travelers.

The authors of the Brookings report had some ideas on how to ease and avert future congestion in the skies (investing in high-speed rail for short haul travel is one of them), but fliers booked on full flights this holiday season might keep their sanity — and their luggage — if they keep these tips in mind:

  • Look beyond the hubs: When shopping for flights, include smaller, “alternate” airports in a fare search. Driving a bit farther could result in lower fares and on-time flights.
  • Go early: Morning flights often take off before airline schedules have had a chance to slip and before expected thunderstorms develop.
  • Do your homework: If there are delays, it helps to know what other flights are available, both on your chosen airline and its competitors.
  • Lose the luggage: Make this the season you learn to fit everything you need into one legal-sized carry-on bag. (Hint: Think layers, use your pockets and wear those heavy shoes and bulky sweaters on the plane.)
  • Holiday surchargesAirfares are generally lower than last year due to reduced demand, but they will likely rise, as they traditionally do, around the holidays.

This year, the holiday fare increase comes in the form of a $10, one-way peak-travel “surcharge” on travel days right around the major holidays. So far, American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airlines have adopted the charge.

What can you do?

  • Look lower: Consider flying on an airline not charging extra holiday fees. Currently Southwest and JetBlue say they won’t add these fees.
  • Shift your days: Leave or return outside the surcharge days and avoid the days when everyone else wants to be on the road. Or travel on the holiday itself, when surcharges won’t apply. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day are traditionally light travel days, so you can save money and avoid the crowds.

Flee the flu
Some experts say it’s a myth that the recirculated air on airplanes spreads colds and other maladies. But it’s not a myth that you need to protect yourself from the germs spread by folks sniffling and sneezing around you, especially with double threat of the seasonal flu and H1N1, or swine flu, ready to pounce.

What can you do?

  • Fill ’er up with regular: Get the regular flu shot. Now. If you don’t have time to see a doctor or stop by a pharmacy or grocery store flu clinic, there are flu-shot kiosks in many airports, and even some bus and train stations.
  • Get some sleep: Plan on a good night’s rest before you travel and try to eat right and exercise when on the road. Experts say lack of sleep and the stress of travel contribute more to getting sick than that icky airplane air.
  • Wash your hands: A lot. Ignore the stares and use sanitary wipes on your airplane armrests and tray table. At the hotel, wipe down telephone, the TV remote control and other germy surfaces.
  • Research swine flu: Find out if you’re in the target group for the H1N1 vaccine. If so, find out when and where you can get the shot.
  • Stay home: If you get sick, don’t go to the airport. And although it won’t help you if you decide not to travel, this may be the season to explore travel or trip-cancellation insurance. You know — just in case.

Watch what you drink
While it’s a good idea to stay hydrated, you may reconsider what you drink, or decline to drink, on an airplane. Five years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tested the tap water served to airline passengers. In late 2004, the water on nearly 20 percent of the airplanes tested fell below EPA standards and had unacceptable, and in some cases dangerous, levels of bacteria. Since then, many airlines have been voluntarily monitoring their tap water and reporting back to agency, but last week it issued rules that spell out exactly how often airlines must clean and disinfect airplane water systems and test for coliform bacteria.

Airlines have up to two years to comply with those rules, so in the meantime, it’s a good idea to:

  • BYOB — of water: Buy a bottle once you pass through security or bring an empty bottle from home and fill it up at a post-security water fountain.
  • Drink from the bottle: When on the plane, drink soda, juice or water you see being poured from a bottle. And skip the coffee and tea: the water temperature used to brew coffee or heat water for tea usually doesn’t get high enough to kill germs.
  • Don't drink in the bathroom: Don’t drink the lavatory water, and think twice about using it to brush your teeth.

Harriet Baskas writes 's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , and a columnist for You can follow her on .