Holiday travel back on the map

Traveling this Thanksgiving may not be as easy as it was last year. And that is both good and bad news.

On the upside: The long lines at airports, "no vacancy" signs at hotels, and crowded highways expected this holiday season are clear indications that Americans are being adventurous again.

The AAA is estimating that more than 37 million people will take to the road or skies this Thanksgiving, which would surpass the travel record set in 2000.

But on the downside, travel will cost more than last year. Despite the vaunted airfare wars, the increased travel volume has actually pushed up the price of flying and staying in hotels.

That's if you can get there at all. The airline industry's economic troubles - intensified by those airfare wars - has forced carriers to consolidate and in some cases cancel routes altogether. The worst hit are some of the nation's smaller cities.

Travel agents warn that if you haven't booked a flight for Thanksgiving by now, it may be too late.

Then there are potential airline liquidations and union trouble. Flight attendants are threatening wildcat strikes if bankrupt United Airlines and US Airways cut their pay and benefits further - something the carriers claim they have to do if they want to stay in business.

But all in all, the return of the mobile holiday family is being lauded as a good sign for the travel industry and the country's economy as a whole - as well as a signal that Americans have a new comfort level in this post-Sept. 11 world.

"A lot of people did a lot of soul-searching and decided they were not going to live their lives penned in," says Sally Watkins of Century Travel in Austin, Texas. "This year has definitely been good."

Travel agents from New York to California echo that sentiment. They also say that for the first time since 2000, people are planning far into future. Many who have solidified their holiday plans are now booking for the spring.

One woman's itinerary

Jennifer Popdan of Bayport, N.Y., is one. Thanksgiving will be at home, and Christmas will be with her husband's family in Philadelphia. But she's currently planning for an April mother-daughter "bonding" cruise with nine other mother-daughter duos.

That's just for starters. Ms. Popdan also has her sights set on next Thanksgiving, when she'd like to get her whole family together for a "Disney vacation."

"Something like that, getting the whole family together, you really have to plan at least a year in advance for," she says.

Her travel agent, Adriane Greene, says her travel plans are indicative of one post-Sept. 11 trend: Families are still opting to travel together, but it may not be to a relative's house. Many more are now opting to give their thanks on cruise ships, in Italy, or on the beaches of the Caribbean.

"There's more confidence in the world situation," says Ms. Greene, who is also chairman emeritus of the Association of Retail Travel Agents. "People have been cooped up and feel it's time to get back and live life, see their family and be together."

As alluring as a family turkey feast in an 800-year-old villa in Tuscany may be, the majority of traveling Americans will still be driving this holiday.

AAA's Justin McNaull estimates that more than 30 million, or 82 percent of Thanksgiving travelers, will "hop into their land yachts and travel a couple of hundred miles to see family." That's almost 3 percent more than last year.

Expect the highways to be packed, and Mr. McNaull has some advice. "If you can avoid those peak travel times, do it," he says. "If you can leave work a day early or come back a day later, do it."

Airport tips

That advice stands for the airport as well. David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association in Washington, notes that during the holidays many people who haven't traveled in a while will be going to the airport, and they might be surprised by new security requirements.

"That may cause some additional delays at the checkpoints," he says. "We always recommend people get there very early, especially on these busy days."

And in the background looms the question of whether any carriers will go under during the holiday season. The most vulnerable right now appears to be US Airways. But they've said they have enough money to keep operating well into February, and the holidays are when most carriers bring in the most cash. So most experts don't believe it will be a problem.

That said, John Hawks, president of the Association of Retail Travel Agents in Lexington, Ky, cautions: "We've had lots of examples in the past of airlines, cruise lines, and other big suppliers like that just one morning saying, 'Sorry, we're out of business.' "

Congress has until Friday to renew a law that requires airlines with extra capacity on their flights to honor the tickets of carriers that have just gone under. But even if Congress acts, Mr. Hawks warns that many airlines are already full. So his advice: Use a credit card, instead of a debit card, because you'll have better protections if the unthinkable happens.

And even if it sounds self-serving, use a travel agent for those holiday flights. "That way if you're stuck at the airport, you can just walk over to the phone and call your travel agent who can right away see what other space is out there," says Hawks. "The worst thing you hear a lot about during the holidays is when a flight is canceled, people go over and stand in lines. The smart travelers take out their cellphones and make a call."

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