2012 Holiday Travel: 9 Things to Know Before You Fly
Business + Economy

2012 Holiday Travel: 9 Things to Know Before You Fly

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As if major travel hubs weren’t busy enough last year – holiday travel is expected to increase even more this year. Over 43 million Americans are anticipated to travel 50 miles or more from home during Thanksgiving, up 0.7 percent since last year and the fourth consecutive year of growth since 2008 when Thanksgiving travel fell by 25 percent.

More than 3 million travelers will board planes, according to the Transportation Security Administration. The good news is airfares have dropped about 11 percent since last Thanksgiving, hotel prices are down a few dollars on average and gas prices have been dropping recently (the national average is currently at $3.43 a gallon compared to $3.86 in mid-September).

Here are a few tips to help your travels go smoothly this year:

1. Download these travel apps. Kayak Pro helps you compare prices, track your flight status, and comes with more than 100 airport terminal maps. FlightTrack also tracks your flight status, but includes real-time updates on delays, cancellations and weather. GateGuru is like Yelp for airports with directories that show where ATMs are located, the best restaurants, and even massage stations.

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2. Avoid flying with these airlines. According to a 2012 report from researchers at Purdue University and Wichita State University, the five worst airlines (measured by on-time arrivals, mishandled baggage, oversales and customer service) are American Eagle, which had the highest rate of mishandled baggage,  Mesa Airlines, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, United Airlines (which had one of the worst customer complaint rate), and Continental Airlines.

3. Avoid flying in or out of these three airports. The northern airports that logged the most canceled flights and delays in 2011 included Chicago O’Hare International (ORD), Washington Dulles International in D.C. (IAD), and Newark Liberty International in New Jersey (EWR). If you do need to fly into one of these hubs, according to AvoidDelays.com, the worst time to fly into Newark is between 7-8 p.m., 5-6 p.m. at Chicago O’Hare, and 8-9 p.m. at Washington Dulles.

4. If your flight is canceled. Winter weather can cause major headaches and stranded passengers at airports during the holidays. If you’re one of these unlucky travelers, first off, don’t stand in a long line with everyone else at customer service. Call the airline to speak with an agent. If you know a storm is coming and your flight might be canceled, consider changing the day you fly. After Hurricane Sandy canceled more than 14,000 flights, Delta Airlines changed its policy to allow customers to change their flight free of charge before a major storm. Other airlines might follow suit in the future.  

5. If you still haven’t booked your flight. While the recommended time to buy a ticket is 6 weeks before you fly, this rule doesn’t hold for the holidays. Most people book flights for Thanksgiving and Christmas months in advance, and the cheaper flights tend to go first. But if you missed the good deals, you can still save by having flexible days, which can shave off some 30 to 50 percent of the ticket cost. Also check airfares shortly after midnight on Tuesday, when airlines tend to post new flights and discounts are more likely to appear.

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6. Need a drink to de-stress after boarding? A handful of U.S. airlines offer free drinks on flights (as well as dozens of international carriers). The free booze is included on Delta Air Lines if the flight is longer than six hours, Alaska Airlines on Horizon Air/SkyWest flights, and American Airlines on flights between the U.S. and Europe, Asia and certain countries in South America

7. Get a better seat or seats next to each other. Check the airlines website a few days before you fly. Seat assignments are more likely to change during this time as elite fliers upgrade and other fliers cancel or change their flight. ExpertFlyer.com also offers free notifications when a window aisle seat opens up. When you check in, ask the agent if he or she can rework your seat assignment.

8. Get more legroom. Try flying JetBlue, which has 34 inches of legroom on a standard coach seat, compared to 32 inches at Virgin America and Southwest, and 31 inches at American, Delta, US Airways and United.

9. Go for coke over coffee. On a recent Quora user question, “What are some things that airline pilots won’t tell you?” an airline pilot anonymously clued readers into a secret behind how airlines make coffee and it’s not pretty: “The potable water the aircraft is serviced with is absolutely disgusting. Chemicals are inserted into the water tanks to prevent bad things from growing, but the bad taste of the coffee isn't the coffee — it’s the chemicals.”