— “There are only two kinds of airline bags: carry-on and lost,” said Peter Greenberg, recalling a gaffe he'd just as soon forget.
“If you do check bags, you'd better know your three-letter airport codes. For example, MAD does not mean Madison, Wis. I found that out the hard way, when I checked bags a few years ago for the capital city, only to discover four days later that my bags had flown to ... Madrid! MSN is Madison. Did I feel stupid or what?”
If something like that can happen to Greenberg, CBS News’ travel editor and a frequent flier who likely rivals Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III in air miles logged, imagine what the holidays have in store for the rest of us.
Listen to the pros
Most of the keys to avoiding travel hassles during this time of year come in the planning stages.
“One of the things I’m very conscious of during the holiday season is not taking flights in the thick of rush hour,” said Betsy L. Billard, senior financial advisor for Ameriprise Financial. Billard estimates she flies up to 80,000 miles per year.
“One of the easiest things to do is to not schedule an 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. takeoff, especially if you’re talking about flying out of New York or Los Angeles. You’ll hit ground traffic, and then runway traffic.”
Greenberg advises fliers to be creative around the holidays. “Be a contrarian,” he said. “Think secondary airports: Providence instead of Boston; Oakland instead of San Francisco; Milwaukee (Chicago’s secret airport) instead of O’Hare; Long Beach instead of LAX. You’ll usually find more seats and better fares.
“And there’s another reason: San Francisco gets hit by low fog, but eight miles away, Oakland never closes. Then think about bizarre routings that might seem counterintuitive. Want to go from Los Angeles to Hawaii and all the flights are either sold out or the fare is too expensive? Try LAX-Salt Lake-Honolulu or LAX-Las Vegas-Honolulu. It actually works.”
After the flight has been booked, the fun officially begins. Naturally, one of the bulkiest problems for holiday travelers involves luggage.
“I’ve learned over the years to pack everything in an overnight bag. I never check a bag,” said Jeff Vukelic, president of Saratoga Eagle, a beverage distributor in upstate New York. “If I have to do laundry at the hotel, it’s better that way.”
David Madeira, president and CEO of LeMay, America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Wash., concurred. “Carry one bag that stows easily and a briefcase so you don’t have to deal with baggage claim or lost luggage,” said Madeira, who estimates he has flown more than 3 million miles on American Airlines alone.
Of course, that isn’t possible for everyone. So airlines are creating options for folks who have lots of bags but don’t necessarily want to lug them to the airport.
“One option is door-to-door service,” noted Ken Bostock, managing director of airport operations strategy for United Airlines. “When you check in online, and you have a lot of luggage, you can have it picked up the day before at your house and delivered to your final destination.” United offers that service for an added fee on United.com in a partnership with Federal Express.
Check in early, check in online
Checking in online has become almost mandatory, at least for the savvy traveler who doesn’t want to deal with getting a boarding pass at the airport. But the options have multiplied in recent years. Being online, either via computer or mobile phone, has never been handier when traveling around the holidays.
First, most major airlines have self-service kiosks, where you can obtain your boarding pass and check your luggage. Also, most airlines either have their own apps for Blackberrys, iPhones and Android phones, or they’re about to be released. This is an informational boon to the holiday traveler, but it also helps provide a valuable connection between airline and passenger.
“If a flight is canceled, we’ve automatically rebooked you in most cases,” noted United’s Bostock. “The challenge often is trying to find you. The option is to go on United.com, give us your e-mail or mobile phone number, and if there’s any disruption we’ll reach out to you. But if we don’t have a number, we can’t get in touch.”
Cancellations happen, especially around a hectic holiday period when inclement weather is a factor. Since just about everybody has a cell phone today, there really is no excuse for not being available for almost instantaneous contact with your airline.
“People book in all different ways,” Bostock said. “Travel agencies. Online sites like Travelocity and Orbitz. Passengers might provide online information to them, but it doesn’t always get passed on to the airline. Or they might just give a home number.”
Delta Air Lines is offering free Wi-Fi “push notifications” to your mobile phone to alert you to any status changes, and new power recharging stations in many airports around the country, said Bob Kupbens, the carrier's vice president for e-commerce. And they have priority boarding programs for those who want to avail themselves of that privilege.
The redcoats are coming
Delta also wants it to be known that the redcoats are coming. “Physically, we’ll have 800 redcoats throughout our system,” Kupbens said. In this case, redcoats are not men re-enacting the Revolutionary War, but rather customer-service agents in red sportcoats who wander around airports helping confused travelers.
Mobile phones are also morphing into boarding passes. “We’ll send your boarding pass right to your phone and you can use that to get through security,” United’s Bostock said. “There are over 40 airports with scanners for that. That and a driver’s license is all the validation that TSA needs.”
Those now ubiquitous gizmos also come in handy in other ways, particularly when searching out sites for information about your particular flight.
Billard likes to work on her PC during a flight. She likes to plug it into a power source. Not every seat on every plane has an AC plug. So before she books, she goes on seatguru.com. “You can see a seat map,” she said. “If you’re a coach flier, you can see where the power ports are.”
Another of her favorites is flightstats.com. “They have weather alerts, takeoff alerts, departure alerts, gate changes, all of that,” she said. “I use that pretty heavily.”
Travel writer Allison Weiss Entrekin is a fan of the TSA’s app. “I can find out how long of a wait to expect at security before I even leave the house,” she said. Entrekin also likes the FlightTrack feature on mobiata.com. “I input my itinerary, and it tells me exactly where my inbound plane is and when it’s expected to arrive,” she explained. “I can even view its location on a map, which is kind of cool.”
Greenberg believes any app that makes life easier on a flight is music to his ears. “My favorite phone app is Shazam,” he said, describing the program that lets mobile users identify the title of an unkonwn song, along with the artist and album. “It doesn’t help me travel any better, except I know which songs to download so that the next time my flight is delayed, I’ve got great music.”
Above all, remember that this is the season to be jolly, even if traveling sometimes makes you grumpy.
“Always, always be pleasant to the gate agent,” advised Fred Gretsch, the head of the Gretsch Company of musical instruments and a million-mile flier. “With planes being so full these days, it’s often tough to get the seat you want, and no one likes the middle seat. But if you get to the gate early, the agents can often get you a better seat.
“A little politeness can get you a long way — and often that nice aisle seat at the front of the plane!”