Millions of Americans are about to hit the road, traveling to see family and friends for the long Thanksgiving weekend. But before you get behind the wheel, head to the airport or board that train or bus, here are some tips for braving the Thanksgiving crowds.
AAA projects 38.4 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more away from home over the Thanksgiving weekend; a 1.4 percent increase over last year.
Everybody but the airlines, according to AAA, will see an increase in travelers. There will be an estimated 2.1 percent more people on the roads, and 1.2 percent more people taking trains, buses and ferries. The airlines, which have been cutting flights in response to the recession and an overall decline in travel, will see 6.7 percent fewer travelers, according to AAA. (The airline industry's trade group predicts a 4 percent decline.)
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That said, fliers – about 2.3 million people, compared to the 33.2 million in cars – are the most likely to encounter delays and frustrations. (Last week's FAA computer glitch was a good reminder of how easily things can go wrong.)
So what should you do to minimize the pain of holiday travel? ABC News asked some experts. They all suggested doing your research in advance and taking advantage of the numerous online tools available today.
Pain Avoidance: Go Online
Making a connection? Print out an airport terminal map in advance (they are also in the back of those in-flight magazines.) Sign up for flight delay alerts to your cell phone, iPhone or BlackBerry. And take advantage of your airline's online services.
For instance, most airlines let you check in online 24 hours in advance.
"The second you are eligible to print your boarding pass -- usually 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds before departure -- do so," said Rick Seaney, CEO of the airfare site FareCompare.com and an ABC News columnist. "He who prints first, gets the best seats -- plus some room in the overhead bins."
Thanksgiving Travel Tips: How to Avoid Headaches
Checking bags? There are still advantages to going online first, including special lines at some airports.
"Thanksgiving travel is inherently nerve-racking. Alleviate some of that anxiety by checking your family and bags in online up to 24 hours in advance. Then use the pre-checked bag line at the airport ticket counter. It's a great time-saving shortcut offered by many airlines," said Brian Clark, senior vice president of travel search site Fly.com. "There is no substitute for arriving early at the airport."
There is one bit of good news for travelers who have Wi-Fi enabled laptops and phones: lots of free Internet offers this holiday travel period.
Google is offering free Wi-Fi at 47 participating airports across the country through Jan. 15. To find the airports check out http://www.freeholidaywifi.com/. Virgin America is also providing free service through Jan. 15 for all passengers on all flights.
United Airlines will give first-time Wi-Fi users one free session on its transcontinental p.s. (short for premium service) flights. And Delta teamed up with eBay to offer free Wi-Fi from Nov. 24 through Nov. 30. To learn more about Wi-Fi on planes, check out our comprehensive guide here.
One big change this year: a new security measure being phased in by the Department of Homeland Security that will require airline passengers to submit their full name (including middle name), birth date, and gender when booking a ticket. The idea behind the questioning is that this extra information will cut down on cases of mistaken identity. Although small differences between your ID and boarding pass shouldn't be problematic right now, consistency will help to minimize your time in line.
Airport security lines can often be one of the biggest travel hassles. Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com offers several tips to speed your way through security:
Know what 3-1-1 means. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regulations restrict the amount of liquids you can take on the plane. Each passenger is allowed to fill a single, quart-sized, clear plastic bag with 3-ounce (technically, 3.4-ounce) containers of liquids. Exceptions are made for medications, baby food, and breast milk, but these items must be declared.
Pack carry-ons neatly. Use clear zip-top bags to help organize your clothes, and pack in layers so that screeners can easily see what is inside, and coil electronic cords carefully. If transportation security officers (TSOs) can't tell what is in your bag from an X-ray, your bags will likely have to go through an extra manual search.
Thanksgiving Travel Tips: How to Avoid Headaches
Pack holiday goods appropriately. If you're flying home for the holidays, don't wrap gifts, since TSOs may have to unwrap them for inspection. Also, liquid and gel-like foods, such as cranberry sauce, gravy, and salad dressing will be confiscated, so ship them ahead or put them in your checked bag. Cakes and pies are allowed, but may require additional screening.
Dress for success. Before you head to the airport, empty your pockets of loose change, wear minimal jewelry, and avoid wearing a belt so you have fewer items to remove for the metal detector. Wear shoes that are easy to slip off and on. And if your travels include someplace cold, try to wear one jacket you can remove easily.
Choose your line carefully. Many airports now offer three lines for travelers: Expert, Casual, and Family. If you're traveling with little ones or have liquids that must be declared, choosing the latter will help minimize stress.
Swine Flu and Travel
With millions of people traveling through airports, train and bus stations – let alone the confined space of those planes, trains and buses – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging people to take extra caution.
"People are in close contact -- whether they're on a plane, train, ship or just visiting with loved ones," Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a statement. "We know that flu -- and specifically H1N1 this year -- is a big concern for people, but flu shouldn't ruin the holidays. By practicing a little prevention, people can enjoy their holidays and stay well at the same time."
The CDC suggests traveling only when feeling well, getting vaccinations, washing hands often and covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or sleeve.
Amtrak Travel Tips
The nation's passenger rail service says it expects Wednesday to be the heaviest single travel day of the year. It is predicting as many as 125,000 passengers. (A typical Wednesday last year had 74,000 passengers.)
Amtrak is adding extra cars on some lines in the Pacific Northwest, Northeast Corridor and lines out of Chicago on Wednesday and the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
The railroad suggests that passengers purchase tickets in advance -- either online, at its QuikTrak ticket vending machines, at ticket windows or by calling 1-800-USA-RAIL. Amtrak suggests arriving at the train station at least 45 minutes before departure.
Amtrak limits passengers to two carry-on bags per person (excluding laptops, purses, and briefcases). Passengers are required to show valid photo identification when purchasing tickets. Make sure to carry valid photo ID at all times, as it may be requested aboard trains.