Even if you are running late, it's just not a good idea to thrust yourself through the TSA Tube of Security.
You think flying last holiday season was bad? Wait until you try it this year.
A record number of travelers will take off in November and December. That is, if they can navigate their way through the Transportation Security Administration's new liquid-and-gel rules.
Here are five common problems you're likely to encounter at the airport during the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's holidays -- and how to get around them:
Problem: No room at the airport parking lot.
Solution: Arrive early. Way early. That's the recommendation of Peter Parlej, a researcher at the Parking Market Research Company in McLean, Va. Some parking lots accept reservations, but many others take cars on a first-come, first-serve basis and tend to fill to capacity around the holidays. If you're flying at peak times -- weekends or the eve of a holiday -- arriving several hours early can help. So can calling the airport. Some facilities have a parking hotline that will tell you which lots are full before you leave home. But some travelers go a step further: They drive to the airport a day before they leave, check into a hotel, then catch the hotel shuttle to the airport. Is this a splurge? Not really. Parking at the hotel is often free or considerably cheaper than at a commercial airport lot. And even if you don't choose to check in, a hotel might be helpful. "If worst comes to worst," says Parley, "you can still go to a nearby hotel and ask to park in their lot. If they have room, they’ll let you."
Problem: Never-ending lines at the ticket counter.
Solution: Click online before heading to the airport. Most major airlines allow you to log on to their web site up to 24 hours before your departure to check in for your flight and print your boarding pass. Then, if you're not checking luggage, you can go straight to the security line. That saves anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes, estimates aviation analyst Michael Miller of the Velocity Group, an airline consultancy based in Orlando. Even if you're checking luggage, this strategy can help. "It's a common misperception that if you check in online, you can't check any baggage at the airport," Miller adds. In fact, there are almost always separate lines for baggage and flight check-in. With a boarding pass in hand, you can skip the first one. Or, it you don't mind tipping a skycap, you can shortcut both lines.
Problem: Long wait times at security.
Solution: There are no failsafe shortcuts, so give yourself extra time. With the Transportation Security Administration policies on liquids and gels in flux -- first they were banned, now some are permitted -- lines at security checkpoints loom large for holiday travelers. "There's no magic way of avoiding them," says Edward Hasbrouck, author of The Practical Nomad (Avalon Travel Publishing, 2004). "The bottom line is: get to the airport early. Otherwise you could miss your flight." His advice is to take the recommended check-in time from the airline and TSA, and add at least an hour. You'll also save time if you make sure the contents of your carry-on luggage comply with the new liquid-and-gel rules, which are posted on the TSA Web site. When in doubt, check your toiletries or you could face delays. If you're desperate, Hasbrouck says there is one possible "shortcut." If your flight is about to leave, find a TSA agent and ask to cut. Some will say yes. But alas, some will say no.
Problem: Flight delays.
Solution: Know your rights -- and shun problem flights. If a flight is put on hold, the compensation you receive varies based on the reason for the delay. A mechanical delay means the airline has to offer meal vouchers, hotel accommodations and phone cards, depending on the length of the hold-up. A weather delay means you're out of luck. To reduce your odds of being delayed, John Frenaye, who runs Travels With Fred, a travel agency in Annapolis, Md., advises checking your intended flight against a list of most-delayed flights at avoiddelays.com. Steer clear of those flights. Another tip: if possible, fly during off-peak times like early morning, late evening and on the actual holiday. "With a little advance planning," Frenaye says, "you can avoid most delays."
Problem: Cancelled flights.
Solution: Take preventive steps before your flight is grounded. If a flight is canceled for operational reasons (such as a mechanical problem or crew scheduling conflicts) most airline contracts stipulate that you have to be put on the next available flight, even if it's on another airline. For weather delays and so-called "acts of God," the airline normally just has to put you on its next flight. But airline expert Terry Trippler of myvacationpassport.com says you shouldn't wait for a cancellation to invoke the rules. "If you do, you'll probably end up on a less desirable flight," he says. Instead, look for telltale signs that a flight is going to be grounded -- for example, a crowd of technicians with toolkits gathering at the gate. Then, advises Trippler, start asking the airline representative at the gate if the flight is going to be canceled. If the answer is yes, ask to be put on the next flight out. Often, the airline staffer will be happy to take care of your request before everyone else storms the counter after the official announcement on your flight's status.
Christopher Elliott, who contributes to NPR, writes a travel blog called Ellipses.