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Holiday travelers beware: Fewer flights, higher prices

Published: Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, Mar. 19, 2012 - 7:54 pm

Airfares are up, flights are jammed and recent storms in the eastern United States have caused long runway delays.

If that's not enough to cause holiday flying fears, the remodeled Sacramento International Airport looks very different from last Thanksgiving and Christmas, which could confuse infrequent travelers.

For those who plan to brave the holiday skies, here are some things you ought to know:

Ticket prices are up

If you're buying for Thanksgiving, don't expect to find great deals at this late date, experts say. Fares are generally higher than last year, in some cases more than 20 percent. Hit by higher fuel prices, airlines are reducing flights and seats. The number of fliers is expected to be down 2 percent from last year, but planes will be just as crowded, or even more so.

FareCompare's Rick Seaney says you can count on adding $5 to ticket prices each day you delay between late October and Thanksgiving. If you haven't bought a ticket yet, George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog.com says you could consider waiting until the last minute to see if airlines dump tickets at cheap rates. Warning: That tactic is best used by those willing to stay home if prices don't drop.

Sure-bet bargains

There is one way to get a deal during the holidays: Fly on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day. Prices often are hundreds of dollars cheaper on the actual holiday than they are two or three days before, and airports are less crowded. For the return trip, you'll have to wait until Tuesday or even Wednesday for fares to start coming back down to earth.

Airfare experts often advise bargain hunters to pore over ticket websites like Bing Travel or Kayak, and sign up for email price alerts. But that means committing hours to the task. Is it worth it? If your trip is months away, and you're buying for a family of four, definitely. If you're busy and time is short, probably not.

"If you can afford a fare, buy it and don't look back. Don't drive yourself crazy," says Christopher Elliott of National Geographic Traveler magazine and author of an upcoming guide book for consumers.

Sacramento airport alert

If you haven't flown out of Sacramento International Airport or picked someone up there in the last month, you'll find quite a few changes: A new terminal, new roadways, parking changes and a shuttle called an automated people mover. Airport spokeswoman Karen Doron advises arriving two hours early to get your bearings.

To that, we add these tips:

• Your airline is probably not where it was last time. Southwest, for instance, is in the new Central Terminal B.

• Most parking fees are $2 more per day than last year.

• The economy lot is the cheapest bet for travelers leaving their cars.

• The Daily B lot is closed. The Hourly B lot fills up some days by midmorning. There is concern that the garage will fill up Thanksgiving week.

• The garage now has bridgeway connections to both terminals, A and the new Central B. If it fills, drivers can divert to the adjacent Hourly A surface lot, but that costs much more than the economy lot.

TSA scanner machines

The federal Transportation Security Administration is installing body scanner machines. These are the scanners that show a generic body image on the monitor. You can view it as you exit the scanner.

Consumer advocate Elliott says he refuses to use the machines because they emit radiation. Instead, he opts to be hand-frisked.

Early reports are that the machines have caused some added congestion at the security checkpoint.

Air travel tips

• When booking connecting flights, it's best to do it on one reservation. If your first flight is late, and you miss the connecting flight, your airline can get you onto a later flight without extra charge.

• It's best to allot two hours or more stop-over time between connecting flights, since so many flights are delayed.

• That said, airlines have been trying to get flights off on time. They are boarding earlier and closing doors on some late passengers.

• Avoid delays by booking nonstop flights when possible, says Steve Loucks of Travel Leaders, a travel agency network. "That way, you will not have to worry about connecting in a city that is experiencing inclement weather."

• If you want to avoid hassles, check with your airline about paying for extra benefits, such as priority boarding. That could save you from an industry scourge: bin hogs. Those are passengers who stick their carry-on bags in an overhead bin near the front of the plane so they don't have to carry them to their seats.

• If you run into problems, you can try calling your airline on the phone or tweeting them. But the best bet, Elliott says, is the most basic approach: Get in line at the counter, and when it's your turn, be polite.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Tony Bizjak



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