Summer travel tips

This year, the summer travel crush could prove to be one of the toughest on record: high fares, crowded planes and thousands of lost bags every day. Flight delays, already at their highest levels since 2001, could also bedevil travelers if thunderstorms or hurricanes hit particularly hard.

But getting to London or Los Angeles does not have to be a nightmare. A few smart strategies offered from analysts, travel consultants and airline representatives could help smooth the way.

The best fare

Q: How do you find a cheap fare?
A:If you have not started looking, get on the Internet and shop around now, before fares go higher, especially if you are heading overseas, travel consultants say. Airlines are expecting packed flights - they have not added many planes in recent years - and are not expected to offer as many cheap fares, the consultants said.

Tom Parsons, chief executive of, said tickets on some flights in June and July are already 40 percent more expensive than those offered in April and May.

"Everybody is fighting for cheap seats," Parsons said. "And there are no cheap seats." But he said hope is not lost in the quest for a decent fare. He suggested flying on low-demand days. For
example, if you are going to Las Vegas or another tourist destination, it might be cheaper to fly on a Sunday and return on a Wednesday. You would miss the weekend hoopla but might have more money in your pocket for the slot machines.

If you are thinking about redeeming frequent-flier miles for your ticket, you should be prepared to shell out more to get to your destination unless you are extremely flexible about the days of
travel and your destination. Parsons said he is spending 60,000 frequent-flier miles to reach St. Martin in June. The trip would usually cost about 35,000 miles, he said.

"If you are trying to go someplace exciting ... some of the airlines are requiring double the miles," he said.

In case of bumping

Q: What should you do if your flight gets canceled or you get bumped?
A: With more delays - and potential missed connections - airlines might have trouble rebooking passengers on other packed planes.

Experts offered a variety of tips to protect yourself if you get booted or find yourself on a flight going nowhere. David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, suggested being
quick on the draw with a cellphone.

If your flight is canceled when you are at the airport, get on the phone with the airline's reservation service. "You can beat all those people walking to the ticket counter," Stempler said.

Travelers should also have a backup plan - a list of other flights on other airlines heading to the destination. If your flight is canceled or you get bumped and cannot get on another flight
offered by your carrier, start calling airlines on your backup list.
If those carriers have open seats, reserve them right away. You do not have to pay for the tickets to reserve them, Parsons said.

Hustle back to your gate agent or get back on the phone with the reservation specialist. Let him or her know you have confirmed seats on another carrier. If your original airline still cannot find
you seats on one of its flights, it will pay for your tickets on the other carrier, Parsons said.

Get an early start

Q: What is the best time to fly to avoid delays and cancellations?
A: Start your trips in the morning.

"Fly early, before thunderstorms kick in," said Basil Barimo, a vice president at the Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents major carriers.

Because problems tend to mount through the day, it makes sense that earlier flights have a better chance of fewer delays; the chain effect can make an airline's schedule worse later in the day.

Baggage blues

Q: What can you do to ensure your bags make it to your destination with you?
A: The lost-baggage trend does not look good. Airlines lost or misplaced more than 4 million bags last year, up from about 3.5 million in 2005, according to the Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Savvy travelers can take a few steps to reduce the risks of arriving without your bags and mitigating the problems if you do:
Make sure your baggage tags match where you are going.

If traveling with a spouse, pack some of each other's belongings in each bag. That way, if the airline misplaces one bag, you might arrive with the other and have a few items of clothing.

Pack backup clothes in a carry-on bag.

Fly an airline that does not lose as many bags. For example, you might consider booking flights on Northwest or Continental airlines, JetBlue Airways, or AirTran. They posted the lowest rates of lost bags - just under five mishandled bags per 1,000 customers in 2006, according to the Airline Quality Rating report.

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