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HOLIDAY TRAVEL GUIDE

A Season Like No Other

November 18, 2001|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

The turkey and dressing might taste the same as always, but for travelers this year the holiday meal might be the only thing that's unchanged. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, travelers trying to visit relatives or enjoy a vacation will encounter a whole new set of challenges, both physical and psychological. Stepped-up security, reduced flight schedules and nerves on edge--9/11 anxiety worsened by last week's plane crash (being investigated as an accident at the Travel section's press time Tuesday) in New York--have made holiday travel particularly difficult this year.

"The traveling public may experience some inconveniences, but we must do what is prudent in order to protect our citizens and transport workers," Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta told the National Transportation Security Summit last month. He said the public must "understand the need for patience and that patience is the new form of patriotism."

In past years the pull toward friends and family has meant that the Sunday after Thanksgiving is the most heavily traveled day of the year for all modes of travel, followed by the day after Christmas, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics. This year the domestic holiday picture is far more difficult to divine. AAA predicts about 6% fewer travelers overall nationwide during the upcoming Thanksgiving period. Air traffic was down 20% to 30% in October compared with last year. Yet Amtrak is adding trains to meet an expected increase in holiday demand. The American Bus Assn. says that bookings for long-haul motor coach trips over Thanksgiving are up 10% from last year. Of those who are traveling, about 87% (4% more than last year) will go by car to their Thanksgiving destinations, AAA says.

Together with the usual holiday hassles--including inclement weather, which can cause last-minute cancellations--the new realities of long lines and scares that may shut down concourses suggest that travelers may face their most formidable holiday season ever.

Matthew Roth of Los Angeles is going to travel anyway. He'll fly to New York to celebrate Thanksgiving with daughters Teresa and Rebecca, who are students at New York University. "I was in general hunker-down mode," he said last week. "I don't like airplanes and airports and find flying horribly inconvenient." But he thought he needed to rise to the occasion. "My girls are flying home at Christmas, so that got me off the fence." To Roth, a historian for the Automobile Club of Southern California, additional security measures at airports are "just one more thing."

Even the most experienced travelers can be caught by surprise by the changes, and infrequent travelers or those who haven't traveled recently are apt to be taken aback by some of the new regulations. Here is a look at what travelers can expect as they board planes, trains, buses and cars this holiday season.

Airlines

The decrease in the number of people traveling by air at Thanksgiving coupled with the cutback in airline schedules--as much as 20% in some cases--makes it hard to predict how crowded airports will be this holiday season.

What is clear is that safety concerns have transformed air travel and altered the lives of travelers who now must accommodate those changes.

The extra scrutiny and reductions in airline staffing (by as much as 80,300 workers, according to the Air Transport Assn.) have produced longer lines at check-in counters, security checkpoints and gates. "This year we might see front-end delays caused by what happens at airport check-in, as opposed to back-end delays caused by traffic and ground holds," says Michael Taylor, director of Travel Services for J.D. Power and Associates, which provides surveys and marketing information to the travel industry.

Airline officials are urging passengers to arrive at the airport two hours early for domestic flights and three for international, although that varies from airport to airport and airline to airline. Some carriers are figuring out ways to process passengers more quickly. Northwest Airlines allows Internet and kiosk check-in and advises passengers to get to the airport 90 minutes ahead for domestic flights. JetBlue, which has three flights a day from Long Beach to JFK, tells passengers that an hour is sufficient. Southwest updates its phone agents and Internet site throughout the day on how much time passengers should allow for check-in at various airports; it may be two hours ahead at LAX and one hour ahead in Lubbock, Texas.

Find out from your airline whether Internet and kiosk check-in are available at your departure airport. (Checking in at a kiosk generally requires just a credit card and record locator number.) Also ask about curbside check-in, which airlines have reinstated at most--but not all--airports. If you can check your bags at the curb or plan to fly with only carry-ons, you may not have to stand in line at airline check-in counters.

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