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Flying this Thanksgiving? Here's how to stay sane

  • A record 28.5 million travelers are expected to fly this Thanksgiving, according to Airlines for America.
  • Thanksgiving will be a test for new 'basic economy' classes, offered by American and United.
  • Airlines are charging for more extras than ever this season.
A child waits as his parents check in for a flight at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois.
Getty Images
A child waits as his parents check in for a flight at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois.

Before tucking into some turkey and informed political debate with your relatives, millions of travelers like you will face the joys of modern commercial air travel.

But air travel is more confounding than ever. There are ever-evolving security procedures, restrictive basic economy fares that may prohibit you from sitting with your family, and comfort puppies on board to the chagrin of those with dog allergies.

Yet arecord 28.5 million travelers are expected to fly U.S. airlines over the Thanksgiving holiday, according to Airlines for America, an industry group that chalks up the forecast to low fares and a strong economy.

Here are a few things to expect and tips on to stay sane — and frugal — on your trip:

Pack and dress intelligently

Packing light should be a given at anytime of year, but with airports jammed with travelers, how you stuff your fourth sweater or your other tablet into your bag can determine how fast the security line moves. Leave the bulky coat at home, if possible.

Have your electronic devices easily accessible so you can quickly place them in bins, and please, for the love of all that is good and holy, wear shoes that are easily removed, if you don't have TSA PreCheck.

Passengers these days have several options to pay their way to a shorter security line, including government-run TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, and private biometric security firm Clear. Most travelers still face long lines.

How to avoid the airline upsell

Coach class is now divided into three separate classes, the lowest of which United Airlines and American Airlines rolled out broadly this year, joining rival Delta Air Lines.

Basic economy is now available coast to coast. In exchange for what is generally the lowest fares on board, passengers give up perks that used to be free, such as seat selection, flight-changes and in United and American's case, use of overhead bins. These passengers also board dead last.

Airlines love basic economy because many passengers will pay the higher fare just to avoid it. But if you are willing to part with some perks and arrive early, you can avoid higher costs.

Carriers provide travelers numerous opportunities to choose the higher-priced ticket and flash screens that look like a TSA prohibited-items list that detail what they won't be getting if they opt for the rock-bottom fare. But some travelers can resist the urge.

Know exactly what you are getting. If your ticket does not provide you access to your overhead bin, don't pack like you can sneak on with a big rollaboard. You cannot bring a full-sized carry-on bag on board, and airlines will provide dimensions for bags that they will accept.

Gate agents will likely require you to pay to check the bag, easily singling you out because you are in the last boarding group. Compare the price of a basic economy ticket plus a checked bag fee and the higher-priced coach ticket. If you bought a regular economy ticket, sometimes the airline, for the sake of an on-time departure, will allow volunteers to check their full-size carry-on bags, free of charge.

Don't act surprised when you are not sitting with your family members. If it's important, splurge on a ticket that provides seat assignments. Some basic economy tickets mean you won't get a boarding pass and seat assignment until you're at the airport, so get to the airport earlier.

Airlines may try to sell you earlier boarding and a quicker trip down the security line, especially if you get to the airport late. For example, JetBlue sells "Even More Speed" passes for $10.

Travel expert Gary Leff, author of the View from the Wing blog, recommends checking your airline credit card for benefits like early boarding. That could apply even if you've purchased the rock-bottom fare.

Ship your gifts

Whether you're lugging gifts for your 15 cousins or you've splurged on a Black Friday bargain for yourself, heavy bags will likely result in more fees, so either ship your gifts home or to your family, or prepare to pay. The last thing a coach-class cabin needs is Santa Claus.

Yes you can bring pie, but not à la mode

Check Transportation Security Administration rules on which foods you can bring on board. If you think you make a better pecan pie than your mother-in-law, power to you. You can bring it on board. But ice cream is not allowed.

Allergies

A dog or peanuts on board can be disastrous for passengers who suffer from severe allergies. Airlines recommend alerting the carrier before you fly, but carriers such as Delta, Southwest and United note that they cannot guarantee an allergen-free environment.

The best bet is to tell the airline about your allergy ahead of time. Delta will "refrain from serving peanuts and peanut butter on board your flight" if you notify the airline ahead of the flight and advise the crew to bring more non-peanut snacks on board," said spokeswoman Catherine Sirna. United said it does not serve pre-packaged peanuts.

Passengers can also board early to allow passengers with allergies to clean the area, she added.

Southwest has a similar policy and recommends travelers with peanut allergies take early morning flights because the planes will have been thoroughly cleaned.

Delta will also find passengers with pet allergies a seat far away from an animal, but Southwest notes that carriers are required by law to transport assistance or emotional support animals.

The issue came to a head in September when a video of a Southwest passenger who had complained about a dog allergy was hauled off of a flight by local law enforcement. The airline said the passenger needed to show a medical certificate for her condition.

What to do when things go wrong

After the violent dragging of passenger David Dao off a United flight last April, travelers have fretted about the legal practice of bumping passengers off of airplanes. It is increasingly rare for an airline to involuntarily deny passengers boarding, but it does occur.

Sometimes passengers get stuck if airlines switch to a smaller aircraft, even if the carrier didn't oversell the flight.

Know what you're entitled to. The Department of Transportation has set minimum amounts passengers must receive if they are involuntarily denied boarding.

In the wake of the Dao scandal, airlines have vowed to make changes easier to digest for travelers, increasing the amount of compensation or giving passengers advanced notice and the opportunity to rebook on the app, if a flight is cancelled or oversold.

As infuriating as it is when things go wrong on your trip: try to stay calm.

"It's never a great idea to argue because that won't end well for the passenger," said travel blogger Leff. "Things are going to go wrong. Flights are going to get cancelled, there are going to be delays. The person ... didn't cause the problem. It's the happiest time of the year. Relate with them, empathize. You'll get people more on your side."

When all else fails, buy some calm

Did you score a great basic economy fare but still want to pamper yourself? Buy access to an airport lounge, which provides free Wi-Fi, snacks, full meals, drinks and sometimes even spas and showers. Airlines, such as Delta, American and United sell day-passes to lounges for around $60.

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