I used to be happy that our daughter went to college in New York, because we live in Los Angeles, which meant four years without so much as a single connecting flight. I used to be happy because airlines were fighting for my business and I pretty much could find a flight at any time of day.
In the wake of jet-fuel price spikes and route cancellations this fall, I have had to alter my approach. We might go back East for Thanksgiving instead of bringing our daughter home, simply because we can leave a day early or come home a day late, while she is bound, like hundreds of thousands of undergraduates, by a class schedule that forces her to fly on the busiest days of the year.
Busiest days, fewer airplanes flying: You do the math. No one knows exactly how many cancellations are coming; only that they are. We must become guerrilla travelers. Either that or we land in airport purgatory, wandering from counter to counter, praying for a seat on a plane heading in the general direction of our destination.
One expert suggests that I start using a travel agent so that I'll have an advocate who knows how to get an employee of Airline A, which canceled my flight, to hunt up a seat on Airline B. Why a travel agent would go to the mat for a new, low-volume customer is beyond me, but okay. All I would lose would be my $10 or $20 discount for online booking, a small price to get where I need to go.
No, says another sage. The best thing is to buy a ticket on Airline A and buy a second, backup, refundable ticket on Airline B, which will double my odds of success. Sure, I get the money back if my first flight doesn't get canceled, but in the meantime, I've loaned the second airline the higher price of my refundable ticket. Or if the first flight does get canceled, I get to make my trip for twice as much money as I had intended, which is guaranteed to put me in a happy mood.
And that will work only for the well-traveled routes. Once you start talking about destinations outside the major hubs, you descend into the next circle of aviation hell, where the possibility of cancellations and added costs rises exponentially. I may get lucky booking and keeping a flight from L.A. to Atlanta for my niece's wedding, but if I wanted to go on to Montgomery or Wichita Falls? Forget it — except I probably won't know for sure that I can forget it until it's too late to come up with an alternate plan.
That's the glitch. Airlines continue to take our money for current flights, even as they debate which ones to eliminate. While we wait for someone to invent the airborne equivalent of a hybrid, we might have to redefine the when and where of travel, which seems far less risky than playing airline roulette.
Anyone who celebrates Hanukkah or Kwanzaa already knows what it's like to have a holiday fall on a different date every year. Let's borrow that concept and shuffle Christmas around in low-traffic months like January and February. Or we could have multiple Christmases sprinkled throughout the winter months, assigned by lottery. If only 10 percent of the population is traveling with gift-wrapped reindeer sweaters at any given time, we all have a better chance of finding an empty seat.
If you want to stick to the traditional dates, here's another idea: the Hub Holiday. Instead of traveling to a relative's home for the holidays, families can congregate at whatever hub city is a nonstop flight for everyone, thus diminishing the chances of being stranded one stop from where we would like to be. We'll eat together at a Hub Holiday airport franchise that serves holiday favorites year-round, we'll open presents, hunt through the domestic terminal for Easter eggs or Passover afikomen, and then turn around and go home.
When the nonstop flights dry up, Hub Holiday will ship vacuum-sealed holiday meals, by ground transport, natch. I can just see the cross-promotion with Apple: Share your Thanksgiving meal on an extended family iChat and get free shipping, which, given the price of fuel, is a good deal.
Cynics may wonder how to persuade families to celebrate Christmas in February, but that's a challenge for the marketing department. Cynics may wonder how the Wichita Falls wing of the family will even get to an airport that flies nonstop to where they want to go, but clearly they have never heard about Greyhound and Amtrak. Revolutionary notions require a leap of faith. Ask yourself where you would rather be on the next big holiday: In line with 500 other disgruntled people or rolling down the highway in a luxury coach?
Karen Stabiner is the editor of the anthology The Empty Nest.