Take your marks.
That annual Thanksgiving ritual, the Hartsfield-Jackson Enduro, is at hand again, and if you haven’t traveled in a while — or even if you have — there have been some changes in the way America flies.
The additional fees are growing almost as you wait in line. You will be asked to pay extra for checking your bag, for checking an additional bag, for checking a heavy bag and, in some cases, for reserving a seat more than 24 hours before you leave.
As a result, carry-on luggage has never been so popular, and that rush to stuff the overhead luggage bins has become a Herculean competition.
And for those who may have heard that flight capacity will be down about 4 percent at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for the holidays and are hoping that translates into thinner crowds, guess again. Flight cutbacks assure airplanes will be as jammed as always. And, heaven forbid, should a winter storm hit one of the eastern U.S. hubs, be ready for that two-day layover in Charlotte.
So Rule One remains the same. Check your flight information first. Because of flight cuts, travelers — especially those who booked their holiday flights months ahead — should reconfirm to ensure they aren’t surprised by a change, said Tom Parsons, founder of BestFares.com.
“One thing you don’t want to happen is just get to the airport and find out your plane left an hour before you got there, or the plane’s not leaving until three hours later,” Parsons said.
By now, even infrequent fliers should know the Thanksgiving week drill: Get there way early; take MARTA, if possible; go carry-on; and follow the rules for carry-on items.
The problem is that not all travelers comply, leading to delays.
“Do your research. Don’t show up and wander around like a lost soul,” advised Phil Bush, a consultant with InfoMentis in Alpharetta and a million-mile Delta flier. Bush suggests studying the Web sites of the appropriate airline, the airport and the Transportation Security Administration to prepare.
Nationally, air travel is expected to dip about 4 percent for the Thanksgiving holiday season — running from now through Dec. 1 — compared with last year, according to the Air Transport Association. An American Express survey showed that 19 percent of those who traveled for the holidays last year will stay home this year.
But with airline flight cuts, planes are still likely to be near full. Airline capacity cuts in 2009 are the deepest since 1942, according to the Air Transport Association. Delta Air Lines cut its capacity by about 9 percent this year, and AirTran Airways cut its Atlanta capacity by about 6 percent. Capacity is measured in “seat-miles,” or one seat flown one mile.
The four busiest travel days were expected to be next Monday, Nov. 30; Sunday, Nov. 29; last Friday, and this Wednesday, in that order. Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest, usually handles about 1.5 million people during the Thanksgiving travel period. More than 250,000 people use the airport on the busiest days around Thanksgiving, compared with an average of about 233,000 passengers per day in September.
And not a single one of them will be pleased with the wave of new fees. In the past year, Delta, AirTran and other carriers have added fees, particularly for checked baggage. Delta and AirTran started charging $15 for a first checked bag last December. Both carriers charge $25 for a second checked bag.
Now, Atlanta-based Delta also charges an extra $5 surcharge for those paying those domestic checked baggage fees at the airport instead of online. Delta also in the past year started charging a $50 fee for a second checked bag on routes between the United States and Europe.
Many travelers are carrying on bags instead of checking them to avoid the fees; 33 percent of surveyed travelers said they plan to take only carry-ons, according to a TripAdvisor.com survey, up from 12 percent before the fees went into place. That can also mean more crowded overhead bins and hassles during the boarding process, particularly with passengers bringing winter jackets.
Those checking bags should also make sure those bags are under airline weight limits — typically 50 pounds or risk paying additional fees.
“The airlines are going to do anything they can to make incremental revenue,” Parsons said.
You can’t do much about the fees (except maybe for packing light), but there are ways to speed the process and minimize stress. Frequent fliers and travel experts offer some advice.
One tip for travelers who will be gone for more than a few days is to book a room at a near-airport hotel that offers free parking and shuttle service.
Reservation site ParkSleepFly.com advertises deals at hotels near 120 airports, including Hartsfield-Jackson. The idea is that travelers can book a room, stay overnight, park their car at no extra charge and take the bus to the airport the next day, leaving them refreshed, relaxed and no poorer.
That’s possible if the traveler gets a room for $60 or $70 a night, offsetting the roughly $10 per day travelers can expect to pay to park in a lot.
“Assuming you’re away for the better part of a week, it can cost about the same for the hotel the night before with free parking than what the airport charges for parking alone,” said Jack Lambert, managing partner of ParkSleepFly.com.
Perhaps as important, staying at a hotel overnight can reduce morning flight stress.
Once inside the airport, travelers are at the mercy of crowd size and crowd behavior. But one expert says there are a few things that can be done to improve the chances of a smoother preflight experience.
Passengers with baggage, for example, can opt for drop-off and curbside check-in on the airport’s lower level. There, lines generally are shorter. For the price of a tip, the traveler can move relatively hassle-free.
“It’s not as crowded, especially during peaking times. It’s a godsend,” said Chris McGinnis, a former Atlantan who’s editor of theticket-atlanta.com, a blog for frequent travelers who are based in Atlanta.
Inside the terminal, the biggest issue is at check-in. And the usual problem area is the main security checkpoint, whose 22 lanes can become clogged.
But options that might be less crowded are the Terminal South and Terminal North checkpoints that have four and six lanes, respectively. Many infrequent travelers are unaware of these two checkpoints.
Travelers can do one other thing to make for a better experience on the return flight, and it can be done when buying the ticket.
Don’t return the Monday morning after Thanksgiving, McGinnis advised, or at least don’t think you’ll escape the end-of-the-holiday weekend snarl by not coming home Sunday.
“A lot of people think they’re being really smart by avoiding the Sunday after,” he said. “But Monday morning is when business travelers are back out to conduct business for the week. The lines for security Monday morning are horrendous.”
McGinnis plans to practice what he preaches. Now a Californian, he’ll be in Atlanta for the holiday, but he’s heading back home on Saturday.
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