The leaves are falling, temperatures are dropping, and Starbucks is serving coffee in red cups.
All signs point to the fact that the holiday season is almost upon us. But unfortunately, traveling this holiday season is likely to bring more chaos than cheer.
More travelers, bad weather, and airline glitches could serve up the most chaotic holiday travel season in years. (Photo: Thinkstock)
More people than ever are due to travel for the holidays this year. The holiday season of 2014 saw 98.6 million Americans traveling, and that number is expected rise this year. In addition, lower gas prices mean Thanksgiving travelers should be ready to face more congestion on the highways.
Airlines For America, the leading U.S. airlines trade organization, is projecting that 25.3 million people will travel globally on American airlines over the 12-day Thanksgiving period — the most travelers since before the recession began in 2008, and a 3% increase over last year.
That is an average of 2.1 million people taking to the skies per day, an increase of 65,000 daily compared to 2014.
The roads will be just as busy.
A recent study by the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation revealed that the nation’s mileage has been climbing month on month for the past 18 months, surpassing 2 trillion miles for the year by August 2015.
According to new figures released from AAA, 46.9 million Americans “will journey 50 miles or more from home during the Thanksgiving holiday, a 0.6 percent increase over the 46.6 million people who traveled last year and the most since 2007,” marking the seventh consecutive year of growth for Thanksgiving travel.
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Much of this increase in travel — both by road and air — is likely due to the consistent drop in fuel prices, making it much cheaper to get around.
Of course, more people traveling means more congestion and longer lines, both on the road and at the airport.
Adding to the chaos is the weather. We are set to have one of the worst winters, weather-wise, on record. A new report by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association (NOAA) says that the El Nino weather pattern is still strengthening, and is likely to last until early spring in 2016.
“Outlooks generally favor below-average temperatures and above-median precipitation across the southern tier of the United States and above-average temperatures and below-median precipitation over the northern tier of the United States” the report explains.
These weather patterns have the potential to cause serious problems for people’s travel plans.
“It looks like with the strong El Niño, we are more likely to stay in a wet, stormy, low-visibility type of pattern across our Southern states,” explains meteorologist Mike Bettes, host of “Weather Underground” on The Weather Channel. “I would anticipate lots of rain, visibility issues that could cause huge problems at airports. Visibility is always a huge issue at airports because it slows everything down.”
Visibility issues will cause problems for drivers too.
“Some major Southern interstates, I-10, I-20 in the South, then the I-95, I-85, I-75 in the Southeast, where we have a lot of car travel, all have the potential to be problematic,” Bettes says.
The unpredictable weather patterns caused by El Niño will cause major problems on the roads and in the air. (Photo: Thinkstock)
He recommends keeping a close eye on the weather forecast in the run up to your holiday trip, and adjusting your travel plans accordingly.
“We’re going to face more flight cancellations and delays because of El Niño,” said Daniel Farrar, CEO of travel technology company Switchfly. “And for travelers, El Niño will also mean some pretty bumpy landings, takeoffs, and midflight turbulence.“
And now for the third wrench in the whole holiday travel ecosystem—the country’s outdated air traffic control system. Airlines For America says that the outdated system is responsible for costing passengers $30 billion annually in delays, cancellations, and lost productivity.
These issues are all heightened during busy holiday travel times.
And rubbing salt into the wounds of travelers nationwide is the news that several airlines have chosen to increase baggage fees right in time for the holidays, making air travel more expensive and more complicated.
Both Frontier and Spirit Airlines are implementing higher bag fees for the holiday season, from Nov. 19 until Jan. 5, with prices increased by up to $10 a bag.
Want to survive this holiday season intact? Make sure to plan ahead and use some of these pro-tips.
1. Cover all your customer service bases. If a flight is delayed immediately get in line to speak with a customer service agent. And get on the phone. And send them a tweet. You never know which group will be more on the ball. Make no mistake. You are competing against other passengers to get on that next flight out.
2. Buy a day pass to an airline lounge. Not only will you have free food and drinks and Internet in case of a delay, but you will have access to the VIP customer service representatives in the lounge.
3. Take advantage of last minute booking apps. Our favorite last minute app is Hotel Tonight. They offer great discounts at places you will actually want to stay if your travel plans are derailed.
4. Don’t overpack. Try not to check a bag. This should be obvious, but it never is. You will have much more flexibility in getting on a new flight if you do not check a bag.
1. Get gas early (and often). Gas the car the night before you are traveling to give yourself a jump on the crowds. See an empty gas station along the way? Take advantage. You never know when the lines will start piling up.
2. Find an alternate route. Don’t just sit in traffic. Use an app like Waze to get you moving on a new, less trafficked route.
3. Travel very late at night. Want to avoid the traffic altogether? Travel overnight. Make sure the adults who are driving are well-rested the day before and then try to start the trip after 10 pm. The kids will be sleepy and the roads will be empty. You can also try traveling on the holiday. According to Waze, Thanksgiving day itself is a good time to travel when traffic patterns resemble a weekend with less drivers on the road in the morning.
1. Book early. Amtrak tickets spike as you get closer to the travel date. Book early and you will save as much as 50%.
2. Get there early. Since train seats are not guaranteed you will want to do whatever it takes to get to the front of the line.
3. Bring snacks. The cafe car will inevitably sell out of everything edible during the holidays. Bring your own snacks and keep everyone from getting cranky.