There’s good news and bad news for holiday travelers.
The bad news is that travel experts say you’ll see bigger crowds, heightened security screening and more roadway traffic delays from motorists.
But that news of bigger crowds is tempered by good news of lower gasoline and hotel prices during the upcoming holidays.
In the South Sound this week, regular unleaded gasoline prices are down by nearly 62 cents a gallon over average prices being charged last Thanksgiving week. For a 500-mile holiday round-trip, a vehicle averaging 20 miles a gallon would require $15.50 less worth of gas.
Travel experts also say that despite higher numbers of pleasure travelers this year, hotel prices are expected to decline. Behind that phenomenon is the expectation about 50 percent of holiday travelers will stay with friends or relatives and business travel will be minimal during the holiday period.
$1.99 The per gallon nationwide average price for a gallon of gas is the lowest it has been since 2009, according to GasBuddy.com. That 2015 holiday average is 80 cents less per gallon than at this time last year and $1.29 per gallon less than the holiday period in 2013.
National average gas prices are down even more than those in Washington. The $1.99 per gallon nationwide average price for a gallon of gas is the lowest it has been since 2009, according to GasBuddy.com. That 2015 holiday average is 80 cents less per gallon than at this time last year and $1.29 per gallon less than the holiday period in 2013.
“With gas prices plunging under $2 just in time for Thanksgiving Day, it’s a perfect reminder — some folds automatically expect gas prices to rise in advance of a major travel holiday — that’s become a popular misconception and this holiday exemplifies the point,” said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst with GasBuddy. “It’s a trend we expect will continue through the end of 2015, so if you like the prices you see on Thanksgiving, you’ll be delighted when Christmas arrives,” he said.
GasBuddy experts advise checking their website for the lowest local prices and to be aware of lower taxes in other states that might influence the cost of gas there.
Those lower gas prices are expected to spur more holiday travel. An estimated 46.9 million people will travel 50 miles or more from home during the Thanksgiving holiday, an increase of 300,000 over last year and the most since 2007, according to AAA Travel.
While light snowstorms are expected in the upper Great Plains and in the Rockies, this year’s holiday weather won’t likely see the development of any major storms, advises the National Weather Service. In Washington state, some snow may fly at higher elevations Tuesday, but the holiday period promises decent weather through the weekend.
In the skies, some 3.6 million Americans are expected to fly to their Thanksgiving holiday destinations. That’s a slight increase over last year’s figures. That increase is likely to be more at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which for the second year in a row is the nation’s fastest growing major airport.
Through October, Sea-Tac passenger traffic is up almost 13 percent. If the trend continues, the airport expects more than 42 million travelers will have used the airport in 2015.
While overall traffic at Sea-Tac is rising, the holiday period isn’t that busiest of the year, Sea-Tac spokesman Perry Cooper said.
During the Thanksgiving holiday period, the busiest day at the airport is expected to be Sunday with 133,000 passengers using its facilities. Wednesday is the second busiest day of the holiday break with 130,000 passengers expected.
That compares with average summer traffic of 140,000 passengers per day.
Cooper advises airline passengers to arrive early — at least two hours before departure for domestic flights — and to take advantage of remote check-in and baggage tagging opportunities from home or from many hotels.
The Transportation Security Administration is raising its scrutiny level for passengers and their bags headed for flights since the bombing of the Russian airliner over Egypt last month. On Monday, the State Department issued a worldwide travel alert for Americans over terror threats following the attacks in Paris.
Sea-Tac is working on improvements to improve passenger flow. The opening of the Rental Car Terminal and its buses shuttling passengers between it and the airport terminal has cut traffic on the airport drives by about 160,000 a month.
Here are a couple of tips to make trips to the airport more efficient, Cooper said.
▪ Use the arrival drives when dropping off passengers and the departure drives when picking them up. The airport typically has peak times for departures and arrivals which often don’t coincide.
▪ If the cellphone lot north of the terminal is full, consider using the Terminal Direct floor to park your car while awaiting your guests’ arrival. The cost? $4 an hour.
The airlines aren’t the only means of transportation seeing higher demand during the holidays. Amtrak is adding two daily round-trip Cascades trains between Seattle and Portland on Wednesday and Sunday.
Fares for one-way travel between the two cities start at $26. All tickets must be purchased in advance of boarding. Morning trains tend to have more seats available than afternoon trains, Amtrak said.
On the Washington State ferry system, the Washington Department of Transportation warned travelers to expect heavy traffic. On some routes such as Port Townsend to Coupeville, the department strongly recommends advance reservations
LOST AND FOUND
Heading into winter, fliers should take extra precautions with their checked luggage — December and January are traditionally the worst months for lost bags.
In the U.S. during the first nine months of this year, 3.3 bags for every 1,000 passengers didn’t make it to their destination on time, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That’s not great if you are one of those people whose bag is delayed or lost. But consider this: During the 2007 peak in air travel, airlines were mishandling more than twice as many suitcases — 7.2 bags per 1,000 passengers.
Airlines are starting to empower passengers — or at least keep them better informed.
Delta was the first airline to allow fliers to track their own checked luggage, first on the airline’s website in 2011 and then on its mobile app in 2012. Bag tags are scanned when the suitcase is dropped off, loaded onto a plane, loaded onto a connecting flight and then again before being placed on the carousel at baggage claim. Passengers can see all those scans.
American Airlines followed suit in August, allowing passengers to see when a suitcase was loaded or unloaded from a plane. Right now, it is only available on the airline’s website but will eventually be part of its mobile app.
If your bag is late, you might be able to get some bonus frequent flier miles or even a voucher toward a future flight.
Since 2010, Alaska Airlines has promised that suitcases will be on the carousel within 20 minutes of the plane arriving at the gate. If not, passengers get a $25 voucher for a future flight or 2,500 bonus frequent flier miles. Delta copied that policy this year, offering 2,500 bonus miles to existing members of its frequent flier program — but no voucher. Act quickly: Alaska requires you to reach out within two hours of arrival; Delta within three days. And ultimately it’s your stopwatch against the airlines’ — they are the final arbiter of tardiness.
And if you wanted to get that $25 checked bag fee refunded, you are out of luck.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
John Gillie: 253-597-8663
Coping with flight delays
▪ At the first sign of a serious mechanical problem, call the airline to have it “protect” you on the next flight out. That way if the mechanical problem leads to a cancellation, you are already confirmed on a new flight and can just print a new boarding pass.
▪ If you miss your flight connection — or bad weather causes delays — get in line to speak to a customer service representative. But also, call the airline directly. If the phone lines are jammed, try the airline’s overseas numbers. You’ll pay long-distance rates, but might not have to wait. (Add those numbers to your phone now.) Finally, consider sending a Tweet to the airline.
▪ Consider buying a one-day pass to the airline lounge. For one thing, there usually offer free drinks and light snacks. But the real secret to the lounges is that the airline staffs them with some of its best — and friendliest — ticket agents. The lines are shorter and these agents are magically able to find empty seats. One-day passes typically cost $50 but discounts can sometimes be found in advance online.
▪ If weather causes cancellations, use apps like HotelTonight and Priceline to find last-minute hotel discounts for that night. Warning: Many of the rooms are nonrefundable when booked, so only lock in once stuck.
▪ Weigh it at home first. Anything over 50 pounds (40 pounds on some airlines, such as Spirit) will generate a hefty overweight surcharge, in addition to the checked bag fee.
▪ Before your bag disappears behind the ticket counter make sure the airline’s tag has your name, flight number and final destination. Save that sticker they give you — it has a bag-tracking number on it.
▪ Place a copy of your flight itinerary inside your suitcase with your cellphone number and the name of your hotel in case the tag is ripped off.
▪ If you can’t live without it, don’t check it. It might take days to return a lost bag. Don’t pack medication or outfits for tomorrow’s meeting or wedding. Never check valuables such as jewelry or electronics.
▪ Prepare your carry-on bag as if it will be checked. You might not have planned to check your bag, but given today’s crowded overhead bins many fliers don’t have a choice. Pack a small canvas bag inside your carry-on so if you are forced to check it, you can at least keep your valuables with you.
▪ Set up alerts for seat openings. ExpertFlyer.com offers free notifications when a window or aisle seat becomes vacant. For 99 cents, it sends an email if two adjacent seats become available. The service is available for Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue Airways, United Airlines and Virgin America but not for Delta Air Lines and some smaller carriers.
▪ Check the airline’s website five days before the trip. That’s when some elite fliers are upgraded to first class, freeing up their coach seats. Another wave of upgrades occurs every 24 to 48 hours.
▪ Check in 24 hours in advance when airlines start releasing more seats. If connecting, see if seats have opened up 24 hours before the second flight departs.
▪ Keep looking for new seats. Even after checking in, seats can be changed at airport kiosks and on some airlines’ mobile applications.
Scott Mayerowitz, The Associated Press