Plan ahead for the smoothest possible flights during the holiday season
Alaskans are gearing up for holiday travel. The day before Thanksgiving — Nov. 21 this year — is the busiest travel day of the year, just ahead of the following Sunday. That’s a warmup for the extended Christmas travel season, Dec. 14 to Jan. 6.
Do you have your airline tickets already? I hope so. If not, you can expect to pay a premium for prime dates. You can fly from Anchorage to Seattle in early December for $111 one-way on Delta. But a ticket on the Saturday before Christmas, Dec. 22, costs $444 one-way on Alaska. A flight back from Seattle to Anchorage costs $446 one-way on Jan. 5.
The airports will be busy. The lines will be long, and usually there’s some fog in Seattle to really mess up the flight schedules. Most of the flights will be full.
Do you have a packing strategy? I try my best not to check anything. Earlier this year, Alaska reduced the size of allowable carry-on bags to 22 inches long (down from 24 inches), 14 inches high (down from 17 inches) and 9 inches wide (down from 10 inches). If you have to check bags, be sure to grab any medicine, camera gear or anything you don’t want stolen out of your luggage.
If you are a member of Alaska Air’s Club 49, you get two free checked bags flying from or to Alaska. Otherwise, you’re going to pay — and prices have gone up: $30 for the first bag. If you’re an elite-level flyer or if you charged your ticket on an airline credit card, you can get a break. Otherwise, prepare to pay.
You can transport unloaded firearms (rifles, shotguns and pistols) when you present them in locked, hard-sided containers. Of course, you can’t carry them onto the plane. Travelers must be aware of local gun laws, as they vary by city and state.
Do you have a ride to the airport? There’s plenty of parking at the airport. But the lots can fill up at peak travel times. The best move is to get a ride right to the curb at check-in.
Before you leave for the airport, check online to see that your flight is on time. Also, you can check in and print bag tags a day in advance. That will save you time at the crowded airport!
The TSA is the TSA. Travelers should budget extra time because of long lines. Traveling during the holidays is one of the times when the Global Entry card really comes in handy. The side benefit is that you usually get access to the “pre-check” line at security. Global Entry costs $100 for five years, although my credit card (Chase Sapphire Reserve) reimbursed me for the charge. The Chase card costs $450 per year, though. Applicants for Global Entry have to fill out a comprehensive questionnaire and submit to a personal interview and fingerprinting. Several other credit cards (American Express and Citibank) also offer Global Entry reimbursement.
Do you need travel insurance? Nobody plans on having an accident. But if you need to change or cancel your trip, travel insurance can save you a lot of money. Your credit card may provide some insurance. For example, the Alaska Airlines Visa card covers baggage loss (but not expenses for delayed bags). My Chase card covers collision damage for rental cars, as well as some emergency travel assistance. You can check with your home and car insurance providers to see what they offer, if anything. I just bought a travel insurance policy from Allianz. You can shop and compare travel insurance plans online at sites like Squaremouth.com and InsureMyTrip.com.
Do you want food on the plane? The last time I flew Alaska Airlines, they were out of the fruit-and-cheese platters because they’d all been reserved ahead of time. Keep that in mind if you want that, or purchase something at the airport to take on board.
Do you want to watch a movie on board? Alaska Air still rents the tablets, but more and more people are bringing their own devices. You can stream movies and music to your iPhone or iPad, as long as you’ve downloaded the Gogo app in advance. Delta and United have seat-back entertainment but also allow for streaming on board.
Do you have must-fly gadgets for the plane? While Alaska Air includes disposable earphones with their tablet rentals, I always bring my own headphones. Also, while there are more power outlets now on board and at airports, I pack a portable charger for my phone and tablet. On my last flight between Anchorage and Kona, the light above my seat was burned out. Luckily, I had my Petzl headlamp as well as my portable book light.
Some travel advice works all year long: Get some rest before your trip and go easy on coffee and booze. Be kind and courteous. But many of the best tips and tricks change all the time: the best deals and how to find them, or the best credit card and mileage program. Check out the “Travel Secrets: Revealed!” event Wednesday (Disclaimer: I am the organizer of the event). It’s over at the Alaska Aviation Museum, where we’ll review the best strategies and tactics on how to travel more and spend less. It’s $25 per person online in advance.