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What to Expect in the Air This Holiday Season

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New security screenings for international flights to the United States will affect both foreign and domestic carriers.

Courtesy of Pixabay

New security screenings for international flights to the United States will affect both foreign and domestic carriers.

Higher fares, tighter security, bigger crowds: How smart fliers can navigate The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

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Fliers, pull those seatbelts tight across your laps. We have seen the future of travel over the next few holiday-filled months, and it is turbulent.

Not weather-wise necessarily—it’s good news for sun seekers that the hurricane season officially ends November 30—but in terms of the great numbers of travelers poised to fly, resulting in overbooked flights and crowded overhead airplane compartments.

Here, a look at what to expect in high-season flights and how to avoid looming hassles. 

Higher, Lower, and Lowest Fares

Earlier this year, flying was a bargain. But high season, generally, is when airlines strike back.

The airfare prediction site Hopper forecast fares up 12 percent for Thanksgiving—from about $288 last year for the average domestic round-trip ticket to $322 this year. The window for the cheapest fares—about two months prior to turkey time—has long since closed. And prices are expected to climb steadily, from $1 a day presently to $10 each day beginning two weeks before November 23.

Happily, Hopper has fares around Christmas and New Year’s—or what the industry increasingly calls “festive season”—slightly lower than last year at $340 for the average domestic round-trip ticket versus $356 in 2016. The cheapest days to travel are Monday, December 18, and Thursday, January 4.

Whatever you do, buy now. Between 15 and 25 days prior to departures, tickets increased about $4 per day last year. In the final two weeks, prices spiked $7 each day.

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If saving money is your chief goal, and you don’t mind sitting apart from those traveling with you or traveling with just one personal item that can fit under the seat in front of you, take advantage of the new basic economy fares offered by major carriers, including American Airlines and United Airlines. (Delta Air Lines offers them too, but has less restrictive carry-on rules.)

One precaution: The rock-bottom fares, designed to compete with low-cost carriers like Spirit Airlines, do not come with seats assigned in advance, which can be a risk when flights are overbooked. Check in as early as possible online or get to the airport well in advance to ensure that you are among the seated.

These fares also are nonrefundable, but given the penalties for changing a ticket—often $200—it’s a nonissue on a lot of cheap tickets. 

Extra Security Screening

In October, the Transportation Security Administration announced more extensive security screening for international flights inbound to the United States affecting both foreign and domestic carriers. In practice, the procedures vary, from airport interviews about where you are going and who packed your luggage to forms that ask similar questions.

Stronger security is coming to U.S. airports, too. The agency announced a test of new procedures at 10 airports last summer that required fliers to place any carry-on electronic item larger than a cell phone in a separate security bin, much the way laptops are treated. They say it allows agents uncluttered looks at tablets, e-readers, and cameras.

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The system is now being rolled out nationally; in recent weeks, it was extended to airports across the country, including Albuquerque, Baltimore, Dallas, Las Vegas, Richmond, Salt Lake City, Tucson, and Washington, D.C. Expect more bins to slow the security lines.

Crowds and How to Ditch Them

’Tis the season to be jostled, as fliers flood airports at the holidays. But there are some relief strategies available, beginning with selecting your airport.

“If you haven’t made plans yet, always looks at alternative airports, like Stewart or Trenton versus Newark,” said George Hobica, the founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. “A lot of carriers are flying out of smaller airports and there are no lines there.”

At the airport, avoid lengthy security lines by enrolling in TSA Pre-Check, which grants access to expedited security clearance. Increasingly, more foreign carriers are honoring it. In late October, the TSA announced that All Nippon, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, and Korean Air are participating at their U.S. gateways.

Over the holidays, even the expedited lines can be long. In that case, study the airport map. Most airports publish maps online so while you’re waiting you can scan their website for shorter wait times at other security checkpoints; major airports in some cities, including Denver and Atlanta, post real-time updates. Alternatively, scan the map for connecting terminals. In some cases, less-crowded terminals can clear you more quickly and still allow you to walk back to your terminal if they are connected.

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If you intend to carry on a bag requiring overhead bin space, you’ll need to be among the first few groups to board. Short of paying for a more expensive ticket, consider an airline-branded credit card, most of which offer earlier access to the plane. The $50 fee may pay for itself in one flight if you have to check a bag at $25 each way (although read the fine print; some credit cards cost up to $95 annually).

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