MINNEAPOLIS - Haven't flown since last Christmas? Be prepared. Things have changed.
Airlines continued to adjust to the tough economy. There are even fewer planes in service, and that can make rebooking after a cancellation tougher. Higher bag fees and new charges can make flying more expensive. And swine flu worries mean you might get a wary look from the adjacent seat if you cough.
That can make this holiday season's travel experience more trying - and costly - although technology offers some ways to avoid the hassle.
The number of air travelers is expected to fall 2.5 percent to 41 million between Dec. 17 and Jan. 6, according to the Air Transport Association. Airlines have shrunk their schedules because of less passenger traffic.
"People are looking at $600, $700 fares for Christmas, and they're just not going, or they're driving," said George Hobica, who runs airfarewatchdog.com.
Bryan Saltzburg of TripAdvisor.com said infrequent fliers might be surprised by the hassle - as well as the expense - of checking a lot of bags at the airport. If you check two bags on most major airlines, you'll pay a fee of $15 or more for the first bag and $25 or more for the second. Several airlines now charge more to check bags at the airport than online.
Technology can give you a head start before you get to the airport. Hobica believes more people are using electronic devices to plan their flights, although what's available varies by airline. He recently changed a JetBlue flight from a mobile device and "was amazed at how easy it was."
Some airlines, including Delta, Continental, JetBlue and United, have started using social networking sites like Twitter to pass on information about weather.
Technology can also rescue you from standing in line. United Airlines is rolling out a "linebuster" service where agents with portable computers help late-arriving passengers make a connecting flight. Agents willcheck lines to see if travelers have already been rebooked - which is often the case - and send them to their new gate, where they get a new boarding pass, said United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson. The service is being tested in Chicago, Washington and Denver. Next month it expands to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
And then there are airport kiosks, those computers that the airlines would rather you deal with instead of an agent. Some airlines use the kiosks to sell you additional services like seat selection. Pay attention to each screen.
You should also program your airline's 1-800 number into your cell phone. If you need to change flights, there's a decent chance you'll get faster results by phone than by standing in line for an agent, Saltzburg said. That could be especially important for travelers headed into the winter storm sweeping through the Midwest. You can also give your cell number to the airline in case your flight changes.
Once on the plane, travelers are more likely to find Internet access. Delta Air Lines says it has Wi-Fi on about half its fleet. You can get Internet access on roughly 40 percent of American Airlines' domestic planes. AirTran has Internet access on its whole fleet. Rates generally run from about $6 for handheld devices to $13 for a laptop.
Still no Wi-Fi on Continental Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, or US Airways. United has Wi-Fi on most flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco to New York, at $8 for a handheld device and $13 for a notebook computer.
There's one new concern not of the airlines' making: swine flu. Travelers might worry when they hear coughing from the seat next to or behind them.
All major U.S. airlines can deny boarding if they suspect you have swine flu. So what if you are sick? Delta and United will waive change fees if you're too ill to fly. Travelers on American will have to pay a change fee if they bought anonrefundable ticket. Southwest doesn't charge change fees for any reason.
Several major airlines have removed pillows and blankets from flights, in part due to swine flu concerns. JetBlue, US Airways and Virgin America sell individual pillows. Airlines including American have supplied planes with extra medical kits containing masks, gloves, hand sanitizer wipes and thermometer strips.]
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