Avoiding the Perils of Thanksgiving Travel

Heading home this holiday? These tips will help keep your luggage—and your sanity—intact.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

Washington Dulles International Airport. Photograph by Flickr user Jiri Volejnik

At this point, most people know how they’re getting to their Thanksgiving destination, and if they don’t, there’s a government agency or travel trade group ready with a prognostication. The bottom line, they will tell you, is that fewer people will be flying, more people will be driving, and even buses and trains will see an increase over 2010, but then they account for only a tiny percentage of those heading somewhere for the holiday. AAA says 42.5 million people will travel this Thanksgiving. According to the Air Transport Association, 23.2 million of them will be on airplanes. Passenger-rights advocates say those flyers should “be prepared for anything.”

Brandon* Macsata, head of the Washington, DC-based Association for Airline Passenger Rights, is optimistic about this Thanksgiving, in part because of the decline in flights and fliers. “Fewer flights typically means fewer delays, and thus fewer stranded passengers. But as a result, passengers will most definitely be paying a premium price for their airfare.” He added, “Thanksgiving is not necessarily the ‘worst’ time to fly, but it is definitely the busiest time of year to fly, and often, the most expensive. Busier travel periods are usually accompanied by more travel-related hiccups.”  The most onerous hiccup is getting stuck on a plane on the tarmac.

Let us take you back to just last month and the freak snowstorm that wreaked havoc with air travel. Many planes were diverted due to the weather, including the notorious JetBlue Airways Airbus that kept more than 100 passengers locked aboard for seven hours at Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Connecticut. The blame game was fierce between the airline and the airport, and the episode—and others like it—has prompted the Department of Transportation to have a summit here next week to “find better ways to manage aircraft diversions.” Alas, that’s after Thanksgiving.

Kate Hanni endured a tarmac stranding five years ago, when she and her family were among passengers kept aboard an American Airlines jet that was diverted from Dallas–Ft. Worth to Austin, Texas. She recalls the experience vividly. “Nine hours and 17 minutes! They used the same excuse they use for every flight: weather. In the end, it took us 57 hours to travel from San Francisco to Mobile, Alabama.” Out of that episode she formed FlyersRights.org, an advocacy group she says now has 50,000 members.

Hanni’s group provides flyers with a “tarmac app.” If a flight is stuck on the tarmac, the passenger should set the clock running. “At the third hour, our app plays the theme from Jeopardy, because that’s when the tarmac rule kicks in and the airlines are supposed to give passengers the opportunity to get off the plane.” FlyersRights provides other services, too, including maintaining a 24-hour hotline (877-359-3776) that stranded passengers are urged to phone for help. “We can get hold of airport managers and reach airline managers on their cell phones,” says Hanni. They received many calls from passengers on the JetBlue flight stranded in Hartford.

John Heimlich is the holiday travel pointman for the Airline Transport Association, where he is a vice president and an economist. He’s optimistic that the DOT summit will bring some resolution to a problem he considers highly rare rather than widespread. “We put so much policy and media attention on these very rare instances that are lengthy and admittedly unpleasant,” he says. “We should focus more on prevention.” Heimlich (who will not be flying this Thanksgiving) says there are ways to lessen the madness of peak air travel.

“Thanksgiving is the concentration of several busy days in a very short period,” he says, and the rush is compounded by the “high percentage of infrequent travelers who are less familiar with security and rules and procedures.” For that reason, he urges people to learn the rules and to think about how they pack. For example, don’t pack that water bottle in your carry-on. He thinks online check-in is a useful tool, and says the Transportation Security Administration “has refined its model for staffing to process people more quickly.” Heimlich acknowledges the great uncontrollable factor is the weather and urges people to have a backup plan—and to not forget their cell phone charger.

Has he ever flown for the Thanksgiving holiday? Yes, he says, but he flies on Thanksgiving morning, the quietest period in the holiday span that runs from November 18 to November 27. Many travel experts believe the Sunday after Thanksgiving is one of the worst travel days of the year—if not the worst. Note: The forecast for Sunday in the Washington area includes a 30 percent chance of “isolated thunderstorms.”

Brandon* Macsata offers this flying advice: “Many airlines now have mobile applications that alert passengers about important travel-related information, such as flight delays, fight cancellations, gate changes, etc. Sign up, especially since they're free, at least for now, until the airlines start charging passengers for them, too.  And of course, do your homework and look into ancillary fees prior to booking your flight so that there are no surprises at the airport.”

Kate Hanni has advice for flyers that she hopes will prepare them for anything, and it has to with what goes into the cabin in carry-on luggage. “Have enough medication for three days,” she says. “Have toiletries and a change of comfortable clothing.” This is good preparation for being stuck on the tarmac or for having to sleep at an airport. “Because 10,000 bags a day are lost, print out your itinerary and put it in your bag. If it is lost, they will be able to go into your bag and find where you are,” she explains. She also advises to “have a very colorful bag. Don’t use black. Everyone has black. They won’t look very hard for it. Use something obscenely colorful. I have bright sunset orange baggage.”

Is there any way to avoid the risk of a tarmac stranding? “Leave early in the morning and take a nonstop flight. The problems tend to happen in the afternoon,” Hanni says. And if stranded (other than using her hotline)? “Videotape everything that happens. There’s no law against taping except when electronics are involved [during takeoff and landing]. Remember, it’s your word against the airline’s when things go wrong.”

She also has a major request to make of holiday travelers. If you’re stranded on a tarmac for a lengthy period of time and the toilets overflow, take a picture. “We always hear about the overflowing toilets, but there are no pictures. Someone should get a picture.”

The thought may not mesh well with notions of the Thanksgiving meal—but then, anyone stuck on a plane for several hours will probably be thinking less about roasting a turkey and more about roasting the airline and airport.

*This piece originally referred to Bryan Macsata. We apologize for any confusion.