Ready, set, go! Tips for holiday travel

Celebrating the holidays in Victoria, B.C. 

Whether you’re flying, driving or traveling by train, bus (or horse-drawn carriage) this holiday season, there are many ways to head off potential hassles. And some recent changes will make getting through airport security lines less stressful.

Those eligible to use TSA’s PreCheck fast-screening system will find three special lanes open at Sea-Tac Airport (Checkpoints 2, 3 and 5) compared to just one last year.

Most qualifying passengers (either invited by their airlines or members of the Global Entry, Nexus or Sentri border-crossing programs) won’t have to take off shoes or jackets or remove laptops or liquids from carry-ons. TSA has said it also may randomly select some regular passengers for the fast-screening.

Another change: Less invasive and safer body scanners have replaced the controversial “backscatter’’ machines that caused delays when many passengers opted for physical pat-downs instead.

The busiest days at Sea-Tac Airport will likely be Friday, Nov. 22; Wednesday, Nov. 27; and Saturday, Nov. 30, when 80,000-plus passengers are expected to pass through daily. Volunteers in blue jackets and staffers called “pathfinders,” in red vests, will offer assistance.

More tips in my Travel Wise column for The Seattle Times:

Checking flights/checking in

Some ways to save time and avoid hassles during the busy Thanksgiving/Christmas holidays:

• Check in online or at an airport kiosk, and take advantage of self-bag-tagging where available.

• Arrive at the airport two hours ahead for domestic flights; three hours or more for international flights, depending on your airline’s advice. Alaska Airlines has raised its minimum check-in time for most domestic flights from 30 to 40 minutes. Passengers who miss the cutoff will be offered a $25 same-day confirmed seat on the next available flight.

• Sign up for your airline’s mobile travel alerts and Twitter feed (Delta’s Delta Assist Twitter team is staffed to help passengers in emergencies), and check for arrival and departure times of other flights.

Baggage rules and tips

• Make sure checked bags comply with your airline’s weight limits, or risk paying $50-$100 extra per bag.

• Stick to the rules allowing one carry-on and one personal item such as a small backpack, purse or laptop. Never pack valuables such as cameras, iPods or cellphones in checked luggage.

• Learn what you can, and can’t, take in your carry-on by using the free “My TSA” mobile app.   Among its features is a "Can I bring?'' section searchable for key words such as "coffee'' (no problem) or "jam'' (OK in carry-ons it's 3.4 ounces or less and fits inside a quart-sized plastic bag).

In effect for holiday travel is Alaska Airlines’ new $25 checked-baggage fee and a $125 change/cancellation fee for tickets purchased as of Oct. 30 (no charge for changes made 60 or more days before departure).

Have a Plan B

Snow or ice could cause flight delays and cancellations. In some cases, airlines pre-emptively cancel flights ahead of bad weather.

Have a Plan B in mind, such as information on other carriers’ schedules or the possibility of flying to an alternate destination and renting a car.

Airlines provide refunds or the chance to rebook if flights are canceled, but federal laws don’t require compensation, hotel rooms or meals in the case of weather-related problems.

The law does require compensation for passengers bumped from overbooked flights if they are delayed more than an hour past original arrival times. Details at

Cheapest airfares

Still looking for an airline ticket? Find the best fares by flying on either end of the busiest days. A recent search on showed the lowest round-trip fare between Seattle and San Francisco dropping to $247 for a departure on Thanksgiving Day, returning on Monday, Dec. 2, compared to $449 for flights leaving Wednesday, Nov. 27, and returning on Sunday, Dec. 1. 

fThe lowest prices on a Seattle-Boston round-trip fare during the Christmas holidays dropped to $635 for departure on Monday, Dec. 23, and return on Monday, Dec. 30, compared to $866 for departure on Saturday, Dec. 21, and return Saturday, Dec. 28.

By road and rail

The Washington State Department of Transportation’s website,  is one-stop shopping for checking road conditions, mountain passes, ferries and traffic delays, including at the U.S./Canada border stations. Dial 511 for real-time traffic and weather information. (There’s also a WSDOT iPhone app.)

Amtrak Cascades will add an additional round-trip between Portland and Seattle on Wednesday, Nov 27, and Sunday, Dec. 1. It plans no extra runs over Christmas. Nor will it add to its two daily departures between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. Book early, as fares rise as seats fill.

BoltBus will add extra runs between Seattle/Portland and Seattle/Vancouver B.C. Nov. 26 and Wednesday, Nov. 27.

Alternatively, you could spend Thanksgiving somewhere where it's not a holiday. Clipper Vacations has packages to Victoria, B.C. starting at $290.50 for two including transportation on the Victoria Clipper, hotel and taxes.


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