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The Traveling Ordeal

With the holidays upon us, more of us will be heading to the airports for our cattle car flights to grandma’s house. And you can count on all the airline hospitality you expect, unless you’re expecting hospitality.

I’d rather not turn this mostly bookish blog into another rant about the airlines, but facing the ordeal of flying over the holidays myself, I feel it only prudent to issue my usual caution: remember that the airlines are not your friends. And how do I know that? Ah, to count the many ways …

As a former travel writer who flew hundreds of thousands of miles — most of them in fairly luxurious circumstances — I’ve seen the good side. As one who makes occasional trips in coach these days, I see way too much of the other side. So here’s what to expect.

The airlines have cut back drastically on the number of their flights in order to boost their profits. It’s working. For them. Your opportunities to get from here to there have become more limited with fewer flights scheduled, and those remaining flights have become more crowded. During the holidays ahead, they will be over-booked, too, because that’s another way the airlines aren’t your friends. My counsel is to get to the airport early — you have to do that anyway in order to get through security on time — and check in as early as possible. It’s hard for the airline to kick you off a flight you’re already on than it is to keep you off one altogether.

Of course, if your destination isn’t one of the nation’s major airports, you may have extra trouble because the airlines have started ending service to many medium and smaller size markets since they don’t make as much money there. One travel expert told the New York Times recently, “There are no airlines left who have any interest in providing additional regional service.” From his lips to yours.

And, by the way, since the airlines have been paring back their fleets, they are much less able to cope with problems like bad weather that causes airport shutdowns. And that just multiplies the problem of getting passengers to their destinations once the weather clears. If you’ve ever been caught in a summer storm or a winter snow, you are no doubt familiar with the frustration. And given the current market situation, expect those frustration levels to grow.

There are other matters, of course. Already-uncomfortable seating that has been purposefully narrowed in order to squeeze a few more people in. Additional fees for everything from carry-on bags to aisle or window seating. I could go on, but I suspect those of you who fly coach could as easily finish this paragraph.

My final suggestion — apart from driving or taking the train if you can and have the time — is to bring along a good book. A really, really good book. And in my next blog, I’ll take a look at some of the best books of 2012; maybe something there might help you get through your upcoming travel ordeal. I hope so, for all our sakes.

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