By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
ST. JOSEPH — Lower gas prices will lead to more congested highways and busier airports for Thanksgiving travelers this year, experts say.
During the four-day holiday weekend, an estimated 46.9 million Americans are expected to go 50 miles or more from home, according to travel agency and automobile lobbying group AAA.
Like other holidays, AAA says the majority of travelers – almost 90 percent – will be driving. One of the reasons is drivers will be paying less at the pump.
Janice Eagle, manager for Travel Leaders in Benton Harbor, said this isn’t a surprise due to the amount of time it takes to travel. A lot of families are close enough to where air travel is deemed unnecessary.
“If a trip is within five hours, it’s actually quicker to drive,” Eagle said. “If you account for the two-hour check in, waiting for your bags and the flight time, you could have gotten there earlier for a cheaper cost. It’s kind of wash.”
AAA says the average retail price for gasoline will be 74 cents cheaper for the holidays than last year. With the typical car getting 18.5 miles per gallon, that means a family driving at least 300 miles will save $12 in fuel this Thanksgiving.
Caryl Olson, owner of Cruise Planners-Advantage Travel in St. Joseph, said Thanksgiving is the busiest travel period of the year, due to the condensed window to travel.
“Christmas is big, but people can go as early as Dec. 18 or 19 because school is out and businesses may close a couple days ahead of time. It’s not as compressed as it is on Thanksgiving.”
Prepping for flights
Airlines for America, a lobbying group for several major airlines, forecasts 25.3 million passengers will fly – up 3 percent from last year. As flights are packed around the holidays, the difference between getting home on time can come down to a few precautionary steps.
Eagle said the first thing air passengers should do is call before heading to the airport to confirm if your flight will leave on time. The call gives fliers more time to book another flight if one is canceled. Once a plane is delayed or canceled, it creates a ripple effect for later flights. For this reason, Eagle recommends booking flights earlier in the day, when possible.
In addition, Eagle always suggests buying travel insurance to cover additional costs for delays.
“If you have to stay overnight due to a mechanical problem with a plane, the travel insurance would normally pay for your hotel room and other costs,” Eagle said. “Depending on what day it is, book a room and keep the receipt and the travel insurance will reimburse you for your trouble.”
Olson said people can enroll in the TSA PreCheck program, allowing travelers to avoid long lines at security checkpoints.
“All you do is fill out a special form and pay an extra fee, but it is a five-year pre check,” Olson said. “That way you don’t take your shoes off, don’t take computers out of briefcases and get through a line a lot faster. If you are worried about time and not the cost, that is the way to go.”
Headaches with luggage
Aside from getting to the airport hours in advance, Eagle said a lot of her clients ship luggage to their intended destination – as opposed to paying extra for luggage at the airport. This is important around the holidays, when gifts can be problematic. For security reasons, travelers cannot bring pre-wrapped items onto planes.
Experts recommend weighing luggage at home, because anything more than 50 pounds can generate an overweight surcharge, in addition to the checked bag fee.
The trick is traveling light.
“No person needs to carry a bag that’s more than 50 pounds,” Olson said. “It will be a lot easier and more cost effective. I don’t recommend bringing your whole house. When it comes to getting through airport security, understand that it is the busiest travel time of the year. If you get irritated, it doesn’t make it any better.”
Eagle said she’s learned to pack clothes into not only her bag, but also a companion’s bag in case her luggage gets lost. That way if one suitcase is misplaced, a traveler won’t be without clothes for an entire week.
In addition, travelers should limit the amount of valuables they bring.
With some smaller planes, Eagle said they won’t allow a carry-on bag due to space constraints. Putting luggage containing laptops or jewelry under the plane increases the chance of those valuables being lost or stolen.
As a final precaution, Eagle said to call your credit card company to let them know where you will be going.
“I’ve had people go to Indiana to fill up on gas and their card is denied. They watch that stuff for alerts,” Eagle said. “Some cell phone companies are the same way, and you have to see if you can get an international plan for one week. Roaming fees can be costly for travel.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 25, 2015)