This weekend could be just as messy as last at airports around the nation. Here's how to avoid major aggravation.
WEATHER DELAYS. Cancelled flights. Lost luggage. After last week's well-publicized air-travel fiascos, many grumpy passengers have placed the airlines on their naughty list.
At Delta's Comair Airlines, a computer glitch caused the airline to ground all of its 1,160 flights on Christmas day and operate at 60% of its normal capacity the day after. And in an equally large-scale snafu, U.S. Airways misplaced some 10,000 bags and cancelled more than 400 flights during the Christmas weekend because an unusually large number of its baggage handlers and flight attendants called in sick. (Both airlines say they're back to their normal schedules.)
In short, what has been estimated by the American Automobile Association (AAA) to be the busiest holiday travel season in 11 years might also go down as one of the most frustrating for those who endured it.
And the holidays aren't over yet. This coming weekend -- with New Year's Eve falling on Friday -- is another busy travel period. So those planning to fly need to be prepared. "As travelers, there's nothing we can do to move snow out of runways or to fix an airline's computer system," says AAA spokesman Justin McNaull. But there are a few simple steps you can take to make the skies a little friendlier.
If you were among the unfortunate Christmas travelers who waited a week to be reunited with your luggage, you've probably pledged to never check a bag again. That's not a bad idea. "People who experienced baggage loss this weekend would have been much better off if they had their stuff with them," says Amy Ziff, editor at large of travel Web site Travelocity.com. So pack light and try to carry-on if possible.
If you must check a bag, make sure you keep your essentials with you. If you're going to the beach, throw in a bathing suit, flip flops and a T-shirt, says Ziff. If you're hitting the ski slopes, take your parka and the long underwear you can't do without. And do yourself a favor and keep your house keys with you. "It's surprising how many people pack their keys in their check-in baggage," says McNaull. "When your flight gets cancelled or your bags get lost, you can't get into your own home."
Pack an Emergency Kit
No one likes to get stranded in an airport, but when it happens, be prepared to make the best of it. Be sure to keep daily medication with you at all times. You should also include some basic toiletries, like a toothbrush and toothpaste, and -- for the sake of those around you -- some deodorant, says McNaull. Make sure you have books and magazines, and if you're traveling with kids, don't forget video games or other distractions. "If the kids are cranky, then mom and dad are cranky," McNaull says. "And cursing the gate agent won't help get the flight restored."
Avoid the Crowds
During the holidays, it's best to travel first thing in the morning or overnight, recommends Phil Carpenter, a spokesman for travel search engine SideStep. Flights are more likely to be delayed in the middle of the day because of the ripple effect of earlier delays and busier-than-normal flight schedules. "If you're an early bird or night owl, slink onboard when everyone else wants to sleep and catch a few winks there," says Carpenter.
That said, if your flight is delayed or canceled, don't rely solely on your airport's ticket agents for help. As you wait on line to talk to them, call your travel agent or airline and ask what your options are, says Ziff. (It's a good idea to have their numbers with you as you head for the airport.) The airline might be able to rebook you quickly or have some other recourse for you.
If you find a convenient flight on another carrier, ask your airline to book the ticket for you, suggests the Aviation Consumer Protection Division (ACPD) of the U.S. Department of Transportation, preferably at no extra cost. Keep in mind, however, that airlines aren't required to do this for you -- so be extra nice to that booking agent. Otherwise, the agent is likely to rebook you on your current airline's next available flight, even if it's hours (or a day) away.
We know: Flights with one or two layovers are usually far cheaper than direct flights. But during the tough winter months, the added expense of a direct flight might be worthwhile.
"In winter, any stop boosts the probability that you have a problem, especially if you stop in hubs based in poor weather," Carpenter says. If there aren't any direct flights to your destination, he recommends picking a changeover city that has more temperate climate in winter, like Dallas, Phoenix or Las Vegas. Avoid cities like Chicago, where you stand a greater chance of being stuck in a snowstorm.
Fight for Your Rights
When things go wrong with your travel plans, airlines are often willing to provide some small perks to make up for your pain.
If your bags have been delayed, ask your airline's employees whether they can give you any cash-advance money or reimburse you for any emergency expenses you'll incur. Most airlines allow their airport employees to do this, depending on how far from home you are and how long it takes to return your bags to you. Be sure to ask which items are reimbursable, and keep all receipts. An airline might also pay for the rental of sporting equipment that's missing or delayed.
For general complaints, such as rude airline employees or inconvenient flight delays, start by talking to the airline directly (click here for direct contact information). It might be willing to settle a complaint with a few extra frequent-flier miles, or even vouchers for a free trip or an upgrade. If you don't get results from the airline, you can always file an airline service complaint with the ACPD.