Holiday travel tips help you avoid hassles, get the most for your money

Summer vacations, with all their planning and photo ops, are behind us. Looming large are the holidays, which often mean plane trips back home or to somewhere exotic because the kids are out of school.

If you're planning on flying, get ready for eye-popping prices, unless you get supremely lucky and buy on an optimal day. And that's sort of a game of chance anyway.

"We've noticed that even though there are plenty of empty seats still available on peak holiday flights, the airlines have jacked up prices to levels we haven't seen in years, if ever, on some popular routes," says George Hobica of airfarewatchdog.com. Those popular routes include New York, Las Vegas, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles and Washington.

There are a few things travelers can do to mitigate high prices, including letting go of brand loyalty, Hobica says. It's best to shop around for the lowest fares rather than stick to the airline you grew up flying. Sites like Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity make comparing prices easier, but don't forget that Southwest and Allegiant Air don't use third-party sites. You'll have to search those specifically.

A check on Expedia last week turned up two nonstop, round-trip flights for $393 from Tampa to Chicago on Dec. 22, returning Dec. 27. Two others were $538. The lowest flights a week earlier were $278. (If you want to go this Wednesday, you would pay only $178 on at least four airlines.)

Airlines believe that demand will justify higher fares during the holidays and that unsold seats will eventually be filled, Hobica says.

"My guess is that a few lucky people who wait for the last minute will be rewarded because with the weak economy, consumers will say 'no way' and airlines will have to off-load remaining seats at the last minute," he says. Lucky last-minute buyers have hit the jackpot this way for the past two holiday seasons.

If you're picky about the flight times, the airline or the seat you occupy, it's better to buy sooner rather than later, he says.

There are other things to be aware of when traveling during the holidays, or at any time really. The following news and tips, culled from Times wire services, may help ease your planning pain, or in the case of the proposed SkyRider airplane seat, increase it considerably.

Could it get worse?

Italian company Aviointeriors has designed an airplane seat that would reduce passenger legroom in economy class even more, from the conventional 28 inches between seats to 23 inches or less. Passengers would sit at an angle in the SkyRider seat, which resembles a saddle with an armrest.

Airlines would charge less for the seats but still make a profit because overall capacity would increase, the company explained. The seats would also have space for personal bags.

Matt Daimler, founder of SeatGuru.com, said that he expects airlines to continue to cram as many people into their planes as possible. Last month, Allegiant Airlines announced that it would add 16 seats each to its fleet of MD-80 series aircraft, bringing the total number of seats to 166 per plane.

The Federal Aviation Administration has not approved the saddle seats. And Jami Counter, senior director of TripAdvisor Flights, doesn't expect it to.

"I think the saddle seat probably won't see the light of day," he said, "for two reasons: safety and passenger acceptance."

Where to sit

Choosing a seat on an airplane isn't just about legroom anymore. New "selection" fees and extra charges to sit in certain locations in the aircraft have complicated the process.

Here's a look at where to sit for a quieter ride or the most space and which seats are worth the higher price.

The basics: You'll likely experience a quieter ride — and less turbulence — in the front, where the plane is more stable. So, if you tend to get air sick, aim for the first few rows. Up front, you'll avoid the annoyance of being near the bathrooms, the galley or the engines. And for those who fear the worst, statistics show you have a better chance of surviving a plane crash in the front.

The next best seats are in the emergency exit rows, although the trip is noisier. You'll have extra space to stretch your legs. But if your plane has two emergency exit rows back-to-back, like the popular Boeing 737, the first row of seats won't fully recline. Sit in that second row if you can.

Premium seats: Airlines are squeezing in more seats to get more money per flight, making coach class sometimes feel like a cattle car. A "premium" coach seat, generally in the front of the plane, holds the promise of some peace and quiet — and more legroom. But travelers beware: Paying extra doesn't always mean you'll get extra. While some airlines will give you more legroom and others tie in priority boarding, some airlines are just charging extra for little or no extra benefit.

When premium payS: If you're flying on US Airways, save your money, says Daimler. The "choice seats" cost $5 to $15 extra and don't provide extra legroom. A passenger might get out of the plane first, but Daimler says these seats don't give enough bang for your buck.

Southwest also offers priority boarding for an extra cost. Because the airline doesn't have assigned seats, it might make sense to fork over $10 and get on the plane first.

Which airlines provide the most incentive to pay extra? United and JetBlue. Both provide enough extra legroom to make it worth your while, as well as priority boarding incentives.

Bag fees lucrative

Don't expect bag fees to go away anytime soon. U.S. airlines collected $2.1 billion in fees and extra charges from passengers in the second quarter, up 13 percent from the first three months of the year, the government reported recently.

The fees and extra charges helped major U.S. airlines post their first profitable quarter since 2007. Most of the fees came from checked bags, which rose 16 percent to $893 million.

Overall, Delta, the world's largest airline, made the most money in total extras at $682 million. American is next in line, followed by US Airways.

Time to cram it all into a carry-on bag.

Change the date

Not everyone needs to celebrate the holiday on the holiday. If you can visit family and friends at another time during the season, you'll save money.

A good guide comes from a surprising source: the per diem rates set by the U.S. General Services Administration for fiscal year 2011, which started Friday. With a few exceptions, these rates cap the total that a federal employee traveling on official business can spend each day for lodging, meals and incidentals such as tips and local transportation. The caps vary by destination and often by date too.

The per diem is not a bad guide to what you might spend on vacation, even though federal officials don't endorse using the figure that way. But like many vacationers, the per diems shoot for midrange. You can see rates at gsa.gov/portal/category/21287.

Debit or credit

More Americans are trying to use credit cards judiciously, but when you pick up a rental car, most companies want to swipe a credit card. That's even if you plan to pay for the car at turn-in with cash or a debit card.

Some firms accept a debit card at pickup — with a catch. They will put a "hold" (that is, freeze money in your checking account) for as much as $500 — money you'll eventually be refunded, but not for three to five business days after you turn in the car. They also might do an immediate credit check on you.

Good to know.

Hotel freebies

What's your must-have hotel freebie? Free breakfast? Free parking? Or maybe you'll pass up the garage and make your own waffles for a room upgrade or spa credit.

Whatever you're looking for, Priceline.com has introduced a new feature that makes it easier to find the hotel freebie of your dreams at priceline.com/freebies.

The new feature assembles freebies in a searchable way, so that a visitor to the site can mine the hotel database to see what's available.

Most consumers will probably search by location. Type your destination into the white box next to "find my deal" on the Priceline.com/freebies page. Enter Atlanta, for example, click "free breakfast," and 20 choices pop up with details on the offers. Click on the "see dates" feature on the right for a calendar.

The new Priceline feature has a total of 10 freebies to search: free breakfast, free parking, golf credit, spa credit, room upgrade, resort credit, kids stay free, free nights, hotel extras and instant discount.

This report contains information from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Detroit Free Press and New York Times.

Holiday travel tips help you avoid hassles, get the most for your money 10/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 2, 2010 5:30am]

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