Savvy tips for holiday travelers

When can you actually demand money from an airline? Where can you find low-cost holiday fares? Christopher McGinnis knows.

By Dawn MacKeen
Published November 5, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Christopher McGinnis loves to fly on Christmas Day. He says the mood is ebullient, the people are nice and if he leaves in the afternoon, he can spend the morning with his family and take advantage of the airline industry's low prices. So this year, he's going to London for $398 from his home in Atlanta. And that's round trip on British Airways.

As a business travel consultant to CNN and a consummate road warrior -- he logs about 100,000 frequent flier miles a year -- McGinnis has almost perfected the art of holiday travel. He knows how to get cheap fares and avoid the crowds. Salon spoke with McGinnis, who just came out with a new book, "The Unofficial Business Traveler's Pocket Guide," and pried out of him some tips to make life a little easier during the busiest travel season of the year.

What is your advice to people traveling during the holiday season?

You have to adjust your attitude before traveling during the holidays. The worst thing about traveling at Thanksgiving and Christmas is that it combines the two worst factors in travel: No. 1 is the giant crowds and No. 2 is the bad weather. So people need to be prepared, and by that I mean, bring a book, bring a calm state of mind and the knowledge that you're going to get there, it's just going to take a while. You should also find out what the weather is going to be both in your hometown and in your destination, and if bad weather is predicted -- avoid it.

It's also important to find out if the flight originates in your hometown, or somewhere else where it might be fogged in, snowed in or iced in. A lot of times, unsavvy travelers will show up at the airport and the plane is still iced in in Boston. During bad-weather months, it's a good idea to take flights that originate in whatever town you're in, because you're cutting down the risk factor a little bit, especially if you're in a town like Atlanta -- where the weather is OK and the likelihood of getting your flight out on time is much greater.

Is this usually the busiest time of the year to travel?

Thanksgiving is always the busiest time of year because it's the most concentrated. So many people are traveling at once: People want to fly in on Wednesday or Thursday and fly home on Saturday, Sunday or Monday. There are probably more people traveling throughout the Christmas holiday season, but it's more spread out. Some people go for Christmas, some people go for New Year's; it's still crowded but not the shocking crowd you get at Thanksgiving.

What are the most common mistakes people make when planning their holiday trip or while traveling?

One is they don't book far enough in advance -- they procrastinate -- and two, they don't build enough buffer time in their schedule. During the holidays, you need to pad your schedule by at least an hour or two in order to make the experience more pleasant. Get to the airport an hour ahead of time and plan on staying at the airport an hour after you land because it's going to take a lot longer to get your bags, your taxi, almost everything.

For Thanksgiving, I think it's best to make all air travel reservations by Labor Day, and for Christmas, by Halloween.

If you haven't bought your ticket yet, where should you start looking to find a cheap fare?

Start looking at options like flying out of an alternative airport. A lot of people who want to travel from Chicago to San Francisco call their travel agent and ask how much it costs to go from O'Hare to SFO. Actually, it's much cheaper to fly out of the smaller Midway Airport, connect somewhere and fly into Oakland or San Jose or Sacramento and then get into S.F. Ask your travel agent to check for fares to these secondary airports.

Is there a way to get around the high prices if you want to fly into the hub directly?

Carriers sometimes offer a lower fare to a destination that connects through one of their higher-priced hubs. Basically, you book a ticket to a point beyond your intended destination in order to get a low fare, and then get off the plane where it stops first. But it usually only works when you're going one way. It won't work round trip, because the airlines say if you don't take that last leg, they'll cancel your return portion. It's a good way to save money, but you have to be careful. The airlines consider "hidden city" tickets or "point beyond" tickets unethical and against the contract that you signed with them. They say you're breaking your deal with them and they feel that they can go after you if you're caught.

Are there any special fares that have yet to be announced?

Every year, two to three weeks prior to the holidays, the airlines come out with special holiday fares and offer super deals to those who travel on days when the planes are typically empty. Basically, you have to travel inside the time that everybody else travels -- and travel when the airlines want you to fly. If you want to get a really good deal on a Thanksgiving fare, you have to fly on Thanksgiving Day because everybody else flies on the day before Thanksgiving. The same goes for Christmas. These deals will be coming out very soon, and you'll hear about them in the local press; the airlines usually make a big stink about them and take out ads in newspapers.

With so many people traveling, it's inevitable some flights will be delayed. What should you do if that happens to you?

If a flight is delayed, you first need to find out why it was delayed. If flights on other airlines to similar cities are delayed due to weather, there's not a whole lot you can do except wait it out. But a lot of times, it's the airline's fault -- perhaps they haven't scheduled a crew properly, or a plane isn't out of the hangar yet. In situations like that, you can go up to the counter and ask to be "240ed" on another flight. That means they will take your ticket and code it, and that code will authorize other airlines to accept your ticket. Usually, the only people running around talking about getting 240ed are business travelers who know the lingo, but the people behind the counter know what it means. They won't get on the loudspeaker and say, "Anybody who wants to be 240ed on the American Airlines flight, come on up to the desk." They'll only do it for people who ask.

Also, it's important to note another thing about nonrefundable tickets, which is what holiday travelers typically hold: If a flight is delayed or canceled and you missed the holiday dinner and it's not worth it for you to go anymore, you can ask
the airline for your money back. It's one of the few times the airline will give you a refund.

How about if you're bumped off your flight?

It's important for people to understand that there are two kinds of bumps: voluntary and involuntary. A voluntary bump is when the airline overbooks a flight and puts up a sign at the counter when you check in that says, "Anybody volunteering to get off this flight will get X amount of dollars toward a future ticket, or a free ticket." That's a pretty lucrative offer and usually the airlines can get enough people off the plane. But in a small percentage of cases, there aren't enough people who get off the plane and people will get bumped involuntarily -- they'll show up with tickets and won't be accommodated. That's the only time the federal government steps in and actually requires the airlines to compensate passengers. If they can't accommodate you on their airline or another airline and get you to your final destination within an hour of your originally scheduled arrival time, then they owe you money: a maximum of $200 or the face value of your one-way ticket. And that's in addition to getting you to your destination.

If they can't get you there within two hours, it's double that: a maximum of $400 or twice the value of your one-way fare. A lot of people are happy with that compensation, but the problem is people often don't know they're entitled to it. If you've been bumped involuntarily, a lot of times the airline will say, "How about a free ticket to anywhere we go?" And people will say, "Sure, I'll take it," and grumble and get on the next flight. But a savvy traveler knows that the airline is actually required to give you money if you're involuntarily bumped. So you need to ask for that and you can use it for gifts for the holidays.

But try to avoid getting bumped in the first place. Get there at least 20 minutes before the scheduled departure time. Because if you arrive after that, then the airline can take your seat away from you and not give you anything. And you can't get that remuneration.

Is there a way to get around the traffic and the lines?

If you're driving to the airport during the holidays, you should be aware that this is the time when the novices travel; all these people are coming in who almost never go to the airport, and they're seeing all these on- and offramps, and they'll stop in the middle of the road. So you have to be very careful of the little old ladies and the country bumpkins who aren't used to knowing exactly where to go at the airport. Accidents happen all the time on airport approaches because you get a combination of business travelers, who know exactly what they're doing, and the grandmother who's flying in to see her grandkids in Sheboygan, and she'll stop in the middle of the road to read the sign. It's a similar situation when you're on escalators and moving sidewalks. You need to be very aware of letting people pass if you're on an escalator.

As far as avoiding traffic, the best way to get to the airport is to use public transportation. There are a handful of cities -- such as Chicago -- that actually have rail stops in the airport; that is by far the best way to get in and out of the airport because the passenger pickup and drop-off spots are disaster areas, jampacked with meeters and greeters and people hugging, and lots of luggage and holiday gifts. A lot of times, it's smarter to have people pick you up somewhere near the airport instead of at the airport.

Speaking of luggage, some airlines, such as United, are cracking down on carry-on luggage. Do you think this is going to affect travelers this season, and if so, what should they do?

It's going to take a lot of people by surprise. If you're used to taking a lot of gifts home for the holidays and just carrying them on the plane, you're really not going to be able to do that with these Plexiglas things. [Airlines are using Plexiglas containers at check-in points to determine whether bags are too large to be carried on.] They're not as ubiquitous as the media have made them out to be, but they're catching people by surprise. I always suggest people use the services of UPS, Fed Ex or the postal service, and just ship everything beforehand. I know people who even ship their clothing, so they don't have to schlep it through airports. While the major airlines -- United, Northwest, Delta -- are cracking down, Continental isn't. In fact, Continental is planning on expanding the size of its overhead bins, which I think is great.

How about lost baggage; is that another reason to ship things? Is that common during the holidays?

Yes. Especially this year, with so many more people checking in more bags, I can only suppose that more baggage is going to be lost. There's going to be this onslaught of all this extra luggage, and I don't think the airlines have beefed up their ground-handling crews, so I think the likelihood of it being lost or delayed will be greater.

How about accommodations?

You don't have to worry about hotel accommodations, because a lot of people stay with relatives. Also, during the holidays, business
travelers are not on the road and so the business travel hotels open up and offer some good deals. And that's another tip I would offer people: If they don't want to stay with their families, if the house is full or there's a little bit of tension, call around to some of the downtown hotels or airport hotels that are frequented by business travelers. There are amazing rates at luxury hotels because they're completely empty during that time. Try staying at a downtown Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons, for example -- they're almost completely empty during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

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