This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

All along the East Coast, airports are returning to normal after the winter storm that snarled air travel over the past weekend. But that does not mean your holiday travel this year will necessarily be easy.

The days between Christmas and New Year's are among the busiest travel days of the year. And aviation experts say even if the weather cooperates, passengers should be prepared for crowded flights and perhaps some unexpected fees. NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.

ADAM HOCHBERG: If the airline industry's projections come to pass, this will be the second holiday season in a row when the number of people flying has gone down. The airlines expect to serve about a million fewer passengers this year compared to last, five million fewer than the year before that.

Still, that doesn't make it any more likely you'll have an empty seat next to you on your flight. In fact, airlines have cut the number of flights so much that planes actually have become more crowded. It's a trend that many passengers noticed this week as they traveled for the holidays.

Ms. DEBBIE CASTLE: This is the Christmas spirit. My kids are coming home.

HOCHBERG: Yesterday at the Raleigh-Durham airport in North Carolina, Debbie Castle met her daughter, who flew in from California, and her son, Philip Kiracofe, who came in from New York. And Kiracofe, who's six feet, six inches tall, said his flight was especially tight.

Mr. PHILIP KIRACOFE: Every seat was taken, so we were kind of crunched up. But, unfortunately, I think that the airlines are getting much more efficient, so that's not so good for me as a consumer. But I think it's better, probably, for the airlines.

HOCHBERG: Indeed. Airlines have cut the number of flights about 6 percent from last year, and the remaining flights in the air are about 80 percent full. Not only does that mean passengers will be packed more tightly, but boarding may take longer, and travel expert Christopher Elliott says you can expect more competition for carry-on baggage space.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT (Columnist, National Geographic Traveler Magazine): The number one reason why people fight on a plane is over luggage, and the holidays are the worst time. Everyone wants to cram their holiday presents into the overhead bins. So if you're the last person on the plane, there's probably not going to be room for your one carry-on because everyone will have taken up that overhead space.

HOCHBERG: Elliott, a columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine, says carry-on luggage squabbles have become more common now that most airlines are charging for checked bags. People who haven't flown since last Christmas should be prepared for higher bag fees, as well as fees for food, pillows and almost every other onboard amenity. Elliott says most airlines even are charging a special holiday fee just for flying at Christmastime.

Mr. ELLIOTT: At a time of year like this, when everyone's talking about being nice and being charitable, when you have, you know, an airline that charges you extra for just about everything, it is not endearing the airlines to their passengers.

HOCHBERG: As is typical around the holidays, airfares have gone up in recent weeks, though airlines have waived advance purchase requirements on some flights, so last-minute ticket buyers can get the same discounts available to people who buy a couple weeks in advance.

And Erik Torkells of says there are hotel deals to be found, as well, as hotels, like airlines, respond to the drop in the number of travelers.

Mr. ERIK TORKELLS ( Well, airlines can ground planes. They cut routes. You know, that affects supply and demand. Hotels can't do that as easily. They can't just close off the west wing of the hotel. So consequently, getting someone in that room for maybe less than they had hoped is better than having nobody in that room.

(Soundbite of beeping)

Unidentified Woman: Yes, ma'am. How are you?

HOCHBERG: There will be a lot of empty hotel rooms this holiday season if what's happening at this North Carolina travel agency is typical. This is Maupin Travel, one of the oldest and biggest in Raleigh, and owner Tony Maupin says this holiday season has been especially quiet.

Mr. TONY MAUPIN (Owner, Maupin Travel): Probably this has been our slowest season since our doors have been open, and that's back in 1979. People call and say, you know, my husband or I just lost my job. I can't travel this year, or can you put me closer to home? Or can they do it less expensive this year than last year?

HOCHBERG: Maupin says overall, business is down about 25 percent from last year, and he says as Christmas approaches, his customers have shown less interest in things like cruises, trips overseas or other kinds of fun holiday getaways. He says much of the travel he's booking this month is for what you might call obligation trips, the family visits that people feel they have to make around the holidays, even if money's tight.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

WERTHEIMER: An American Airlines plane filled mostly with Jamaicans heading home for Christmas skidded off the runway last night while landing during a heavy rain storm in Kingston. Jamaican officials said many people suffered cuts and other injuries, but only two were admitted to the hospital, and no one had injuries that were life-threatening. Most of the passengers walked away and walked on to what will likely be especially joyous family reunions.

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