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Thanksgiving travel season brings surprises for infrequent fliers

You're no road warrior. In fact, you haven't taken a plane anywhere since last Thanksgiving. So, what's in store for you and a few million fellow fliers as the holiday travel season kicks off this week?

Few, if any, empty seats in the cabin. More competition for room to stash that carry-on bag. Higher airline luggage fees, unless you plan ahead. WiFi in the sky and the airport. Here's the scoop:

FEWER FLIGHTS, FEWER SEATS: Struggling to make a profit, airlines have been getting smaller for the last two years. Since November 2007, the number of seats flown in the United States is down 13 percent, according to USA Today. Fewer people are buying tickets, but seats are disappearing even faster. Thanksgiving holiday passenger traffic should decline 4 percent from a year ago, says the Air Transport Association, an airline trade group. But at Tampa International Airport, airlines are flying nearly 11 percent fewer seats this month, compared with 2 percent nationally.

WHY THAT MATTERS, NO. 1: Don't expect to sit beside an empty middle seat. If you're one of the last groups on board, good luck finding space to store that duffel bag. Before airline luggage fees came into vogue last year, just 12 percent of passengers flew with only a carry-on, said fliers surveyed by the online travel site TripAdvisor ( www.tripadvisor.com). Now, 33 percent of air travelers say they do. "My last few flights, the last 10 or 15 people were forced to gate-check their carry-ons because they ran out of room," says Jami Counter, senior director of flights at TripAdvisor.

WHY THAT MATTERS, NO. 2: When airlines fly packed planes, a service problem can turn quickly into a crisis. A big storm at a major airline hub can strand thousands of travelers. "If there's weather that Sunday (after Thanksgiving), that's a major disaster," Counter says. "There won't be enough seats to rebook those passengers." Miss a connecting flight, and you'll likely face a long wait for an open seat as well. Especially if you're traveling as a family or as part of a group.

PAY NOW OR PAY (MORE) LATER: Most airlines kicked up those pesky fees for checking a bag or two in the summer. But only if you wait until you get to the airport. Check in online, and you won't pay the extra $5 per bag on Delta, Continental, US Airways and United — just standard bag fees. Southwest still doesn't charge for one or two bags. JetBlue gives you one bag free but charges $30 for the second.

JUMP THE LINE: Southwest began charging $10 a flight — $20 per round trip — for priority boarding in September. The Early Bird fee puts you near the front of the line. That's prime position to pick a seat you like and stow your stuff. "It's a legal way to make sure your bags get put up (in the overhead bin)," says Rick Seaney, chief executive of the fare-checking Web site farecompare.com. Southwest is Tampa International's biggest carrier, flying three of every 10 passengers.

SURFING AT 30,000 FEET: While you've been away, a few airlines and lots of airports started offering wireless Internet connections for a fee. AirTran Airways and Virgin America have WiFi hot spots on all their jets. Delta and American have equipped hundreds of their planes. Free sessions are available on AirTran (through Dec. 31) and Delta (Nov. 24 to Nov, 30) for first-time users. Separately, Google is sponsoring free wireless Internet at 47 U.S. airports (32 of which regularly charge for it) through Jan. 15. Tampa International has provided free WiFi since 2005.

SPAGHETTI JUNCTION: Ramps, exits and entrances around Tampa International have changed probably a half-dozen times in the last year with ongoing highway reconstruction. Act like a tourist and watch for signs, says John McShaffrey, spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation. Also, don't rely on your dashboard GPS. Many mass-market brands rely on outdated maps, he says.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

>>Fast facts

More tips for holiday air travel

• If you must bring valuables, such as jewelry, expensive cameras or electronics, put them in a carry-on bag. — never in checked luggage.

• Don't bring wrapped presents through airport security checkpoints. Officers will open them if X-ray machines show anything inside that looks suspicious.

• Bottles of liquids, gels and aerosols in carry-on bags must be 3.4 ounces or less. All your bottles must fit in a quart-size, zip-top plastic bag.

• Arrive early everywhere — the parking garage, ticket counter, security checkpoints and gates — especially on the busiest travel days. Those are, in order: Monday after Thanksgiving (Nov. 30), Sunday after Thanksgiving (Nov. 29), Friday before Thanksgiving (Nov. 20) and Wednesday before Thanksgiving (Nov. 25), according to the Air Transport Association.

Thanksgiving travel season brings surprises for infrequent fliers 11/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 11:24pm]

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