5 things customers say during the holidays – and what they really mean

Iona/Shutterstock
Iona/Shutterstock
It’s that time of year when you follow the herd to the mall and gorge on the displays.

That’s right, I’m talking about the irrational holiday shopping season. Think I’m overstating this? The authoritative National Retail Federation (NRF) predicts a 3.9 percent rise in holiday sales this year, meaning that collectively, Americans will buy $602 billion worth of gifts before the end of this year.

The average holiday shopper will drop $737 on gifts, décor and greeting cards, according to the NRF. That’s some serious gorging!

This year, I’m not going to tell you to avoid the frenzy. (What kind of Scrooge would I be?) Instead, as a service to consumers, let me help you understand what the other members of the swarm actually mean when they talk amongst themselves.
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Get into the holiday spirit with these TSA-inspired songs

Get into the holiday spirit with these TSA-inspired songs

Whether you think the TSAs new body scans and pat downs are completely appropriate or a violation of your civil rights, you can’t deny this issue is a cultural touchpoint that has everyone talking. When’s the last time anything in the travel industry did that?

Case-in-point: The holiday-inspired songs and videos. The above video, from Next Media Animation, is borderline NSFW and I’ve heard better singing in my favorite watering hole. But the animation is pretty funny.
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“It’s a Christmas miracle”

If you live in the Midwest, I don’t need to tell you that you’re having a white Christmas. A very white Christmas.

But for Christopher Clauson, it was almost a blue Christmas (cue Elvis, please). He’d booked a room on Dec. 24 at the Allerton Hotel in Chicago through Hotwire. As many of you know, Hotwire’s rooms are discounted, but they’re also completely nonrefundable — no exceptions.

When Clauson and his partner could not make it to Chicago because of the blizzard, they thought they’d lose their hotel room. He wasn’t expecting what he calls a “Christmas miracle.”

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It’s holiday travel time! You heard it here first!

snowy roadTake your car in for a tuneup. Give yourself extra time if you’re flying. Oh, and it’s going to be one for the record books.

You’ve read that before, haven’t you?

When it comes to the travel tips you see just before every major holiday, you can count on paint-by-numbers reporting: a AAA prediction followed by a sound bite from one of three travel “experts” (always the same three) followed by that familiar advice, dispensed in easy-to-read bullet points.

But which tips are cliches that should be ignored, and which are bona fide, you-must-do-this advice? If you’ve been reading these stories as long as I have, you must be wondering.
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Stranded five days in Syracuse — what does the airline owe me?

Does an airline owe you anything for a five-day delay? William Danylchuk was held up in Syracuse for the better part of the week, while trying to get home to Des Moines for Christmas. American Airlines offered him nothing for the inconvenience. Can it do that?

Here’s Danylchuk’s story:

I had been canceled and rebooked by American Airlines on every flight for five days. I called American every day an average of 25 times using the automated system to monitor flight departures and arrivals. I also checked with its live reservationists.

I understand weather was not good at times in Chicago or Syracuse, but there was never a time that the Syracuse airport was even closed, there were plenty of flights that made the trip. But any time I found one online with seats for sale, I was told it was booked.

I expected to be in Syracuse for a brief meeting and home by Christmas. I missed Christmas and spent the week alone in a hotel that cost nearly $600. I am not one to complain, but anyone I talked to thought five days was insane to be in a place that still had tons of flights leaving every day. I would have been willing to take any other route at any time, but was never offered anything but just to sit and wait.

I have never heard of anything like this and wondered what you think?

I think five days is way too long. But what I think doesn’t matter as much as what American’s conditions of carriage — the legal agreement between you and the airline — says.

American will endeavor to carry you and your baggage with reasonable dispatch, but times shown in timetables or elsewhere are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. American may, without notice, substitute alternate carriers or aircraft and, if necessary, may alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket.

Schedules are subject to change without notice. American is not responsible for or liable for failure to make connections, or to operate any flight according to schedule, or for a change to the schedule of any flight. Under no circumstances shall American be liable for any special, incidental or consequential damages arising from the foregoing.

In other words, don’t hold us to our schedules. Don’t expect anything if we’re late.

And regarding compensation, it would depend on the reason for your cancellation or delay. If it’s caused by mechanical problems, then you would be entitled to a hotel and meal voucher, under the contract. But if it’s weather-related — a so-called “Act of God” — you’re essentially on your own.

Airlines have some flexibility in how they can interpret their own contract, and I believe if you had mentioned your problem to a ticket agent, American might have offered to cover your hotel. I think it should have.

I asked American about your ordeal. Here’s what a spokeswoman told me:

Well, unfortunately a combination of bad weather and full planes looks like what happened. And, of course there are fewer flights as well. One other thing that contributed is that in inclement weather, the regional airlines have to cancel more than the mainline.

As you are probably aware, the automated system rebooks the AAdvantage premium status first, and with full planes the AAdvantage status customers get what few seats are left first.

I am sorry that anyone gets stuck, it is absolutely no fun. It’s happened to me several times, especially when I used to travel for a living. I have forwarded your email on to our Customer Relations team so they are aware of this situation.

Danylchuk is not happy with that answer.

I have traveled all over the country to little backwoods areas more times than I can remember in the past two years on business. But In the past I have picked the airline with the best schedule for myself and have not been as concerned about the level of my advantage membership. If I were a premium advantage member this would not have happened, I guess?

Sounds like a lost cause.

Maybe getting compensation from American is a lost cause at this point. But the lessons learned from Danylchuk’s five-day ordeal are, as they say, priceless.

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Lessons learned from past holiday meltdowns

You can’t talk about the worst holiday travel experiences without mentioning the movie “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.”

The 1987 comedy, starring Steve Martin and John Candy, is about one frazzled business traveler’s struggle to get home in time for Thanksgiving. It’s a textbook holiday travel nightmare, featuring snowstorms, flight diversions and almost every imaginable delay.

Art has a way of imitating life. Or is it the other way around?

Perhaps our fascination and how closely many of us relate with the iconic ’80s flick says something important about us. We expect to have an incredibly negative experience, whether it’s being held hostage by a blizzard or trapped in a taxi that’s taking the scenic route.

What have we learned in the two decades since “Planes,” and what does it say about this year’s holidays?

Learning from our mistakes
One of the worst holiday air travel experiences in recent memory happened in early 1999. About 3,700 Northwest Airlines passengers returning to work after the New Year were trapped on parked planes at Detroit Metropolitan Airport for hours in a blizzard. The planes couldn’t take off or return to the gate, and travelers reportedly suffered inconveniences such as overflowing toilets and running out of food and water.

Some of the passengers sued Northwest and in a 2001 settlement, the airline agreed to pay each passenger an average of $1,300 as compensation. Sadly, the industry didn’t learn back then that trapping passengers on a plane was bad for business. They’ve done it time and again, including JetBlue’s infamous Valentine’s Day meltdown in New York and American Airlines’ stranding of passengers in Austin in early 2007, which led to the latest passenger rights revolution.

Weather turns nasty, roads get dangerous
Many of the worst traffic accidents on American roads happen during the winter holiday travel period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Like the 99-car pileup on December 11, 1990, on Interstate 75 near Calhoun, Tenn., which was triggered when a tractor-trailer in the southbound lanes rear-ended another semi in the fog. In the ensuing pile-up, 12 people were killed and 42 injured. Other notable collisions include a 127-car pile-up in San Antonio, Texas(Dec. 2, 1994) and a 100-car pile-up in Central Michigan (Dec. 31, 1998).

Multiple-car accidents can happen any time of the year, but they seem particularly prevalent during the winter holiday period, when the weather turns bad and motorists get blitzed on eggnog before getting behind the wheel.

All the more reason to drive carefully — or not at all.

Holiday headaches on the high seas

True, the biggest cruise ship catastrophe in recent memory happened last April, when 1,200 passengers and a crew of 400 had to be evacuated from the Sea Diamond after she apparently hit a rock near the Greek island of Santorini — and eventually sunk.

But the winter holidays aren’t particularly kind to cruisers, either. On Nov. 23 of that year, more than 150 passengers and crew aboard Norwegian cruise ship MS Nordnorge had to be rescued near Antarctica when their ship is thought to have collided with an iceberg. And who can forget the Seabourn Spirit’s close call with pirates back in 2005? The buccaneers opened fire on the luxury liner with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades a few weeks before Thanksgiving. Fortunately, the attack was successfully repelled.

I’m not saying you should avoid cruising over the holidays. I am saying things happen. Mind the icebergs — and pirates.

Ask for a room on the ground floor
There have been few notable hotel accidents or disasters in the past, oh, 60 years. However, two of the deadliest hotel fires in U.S. history — one at the MGM Grand in 1980 and another at the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta in 1947 — broke out during the winter holiday period. I know, both happened more than two decades ago, but you might consider staying on the ground floor during your holiday stay.

All aboard!
A review of the major railway disasters in the United States since the turn of the century suggests that statistically speaking, catching the train probably is your safest bet during the holidays.

The worst accidents tend to happen at other times of the year, although there are notable exceptions, such as the head-on collision on Nov. 29, 2004 of two CSX freight trains in Zephyrhills, Fla., which killed one person and injured three. But those were freight trains, so they don’t really count. Lesson learned? The train may be slow, but it’ll get you there in one piece.

Take the forecasts with a grain of salt
Be wary when studying the Thanksgiving travel forecasts — and those issued just before Christmas and New Year’s Day, for that matter. The best-known of the lot is done by AAA (and was released Tuesday), which last year predicted a “modest increase” in the number of Thanksgiving travelers. Nothing against AAA, or any of the other travel companies with predictions and polls, but it’s almost impossible to verify any of their claims. For example, AAA expected 31.2 million people to travel by car last Thanksgiving. Did they? Nobody knows. Truth is, no one counts how many motorists were on the road during the holiday weekend. What’s the point of making a forecast when no one will ever know if it is true? And will the forecasts stop people from making the trip to Grandma’s house? Unlikely.

So what does all of this mean? I think it means that our collective expectation that holiday travel will be a negative experience is both true — and untrue.

Yes, historically the holidays are a difficult time to be on the road. I haven’t even mentioned the long lines at the airport, the delays, the cranky fellow travelers, and, of course, the traffic. But this year may be different, as I recently predicted.

In fact, these holidays may be among the best in recent memory. Airlines, hotels and other travel companies are trying to coax travelers to open their wallets by offering attractive prices. If you’re diligent and flexible, you could find your best deal in years.

I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong before. At the press screening of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” I told director John Hughes he should consider a sequel to his cult classic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” (I was a know-it-all college film critic back then, and that’s what know-it-all college film critics do. They tell Hollywood directors what to film.)

“Might be interesting,” he said.

Interesting, yes. But unnecessary — just like a sequel to holiday horrors we seem to endure every year at this time. Maybe we’ll get a break in 2008.

Every week, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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5 reasons to travel during the 2008 holidays

Here’s a holiday travel forecast you probably won’t read anywhere else: look for lower prices on everything from air fares to hotel room rates, smaller crowds and a more pleasant overall experience.

Am I nuts? Couldn’t I just write the same story everyone else is? You know — the holidays are coming! The holidays are coming! They’ll be busier than ever this year. So here are a dozen tips on how to stay sane, but really, you’re better off just staying home.

That’s how the facts seem to line up. Consider:

• Airlines will pare their domestic flights by 8.1 percent during the last four months of the year. That’s a total of 25 million fewer seats, according to an estimate by OAGback Aviation Solutions and reported by my colleague, Msnbc.com columnist Rob Lovitt. It’s the biggest pullback since 2001 — and perhaps ever.

• Drivers are making similar cutbacks. Since last November, Americans have driven 53.2 billion miles less than they did over the same period a year earlier, according to the Transportation Department. That’s a bigger drop than the one in the oil crisis of the 1970s, which precipitated a decline of 49.3 billion miles. As a result, Labor Day travel by car was basically flat compared with last year, and car rental rates have remained more or less unchanged since 2007.

• Hotels are feeling the pinch, too. They were about two-thirds full, on average, during the second quarter of this year, down by more than two percent from the same period a year earlier, according to Smith Travel Research. The only bright spot — at least for the hotels — is that they’ve been able to squeeze more money out of each guest. Average room rates are up by almost four percent for the same period. That’s bad news and more bad news for travelers. Panicky hoteliers are cranking up the fees and rates on their remaining guests. That’s no fun.

You don’t have to be a snarky travel columnist to connect the dots and conclude that this is going to be the worst fall for travel ever and that the upcoming holidays will be completely unbearable.

But that would be nonsense. The fall of 2008 and Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years might be among the best for travel in recent memory. Certainly, the best since 2001. It could even be the best ever.

I’ve come to this contrarian conclusion after talking with a lot of folks in the travel industry and with you, dear travelers. You are not barricading yourselves in your bedrooms like extras in a zombie movie. You have no problem scheduling a trip during the holidays. No, you are actually looking forward to this fall. Here are five reasons why I am, too:

1. Behold, a president bearing gifts.
Regardless of who wins the presidential election in November, travelers can probably expect a change for the better. Practically speaking, it could mean lower fuel prices (after all, both candidates say they want to lessen our dependence on foreign oil) and a higher dollar (both candidates have pledged to control spending and jumpstart the economy). Author and blogger Janet Groene is upbeat about travel after the presidential election, adding that her optimism holds true, “no matter who wins.” I agree.

2. A more civil flying experience.
Air travelers are adjusting to the historic airline cuts by flying less. So it’s unlikely that flights will be more crowded than ever. In fact, it’s possible that more air travelers will forfeit their trip than the airlines expected, which could translate into smaller crowds at the airports and possibly even lower fares. There’s some evidence this is already happening. Expedia says in certain markets, prices are dropping precipitously. Fall fares between Denver and San Francisco are down 32 percent and those between Denver and San Diego are down 30 percent. How about airline delays? “Passenger trip delays will remain at the same levels as 2007,” Lance Sherry, executive director for the Center for Air Transportation Systems Research at George Mason University, told me. That’s not exactly good news, but then again, at least it won’t be any worse.

3. Some cruise prices are sinking.
The cost of a Caribbean cruise is falling to levels not seen since 2001, according to Sharon Emerson, a Seattle travel agent and blogger. Why the slide? She speculates that there are overcapacity issues — too many berths, not enough cruisers — or that it’s just the slow season in the islands. Either way, there are deals to be had. “For instance, Royal Caribbean has cruises from under $700 to the Caribbean,” she says. “Carnival has many under $600.”

4. Smaller crowds overseas, too.
The fall and holidays were already a great time to take an overseas vacation — it’s a slow time of year, and most of the rest of the world has never heard of Thanksgiving — but this year it could be even better. “There will be a lot less traffic to international destinations,” predicts Michael Stone, a travel consultant with Gestation, Inc., in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “This will likely mean better service as employees in international destinations will be happier to see American travelers.” His personal favorite is the Caribbean, but my colleague Tim Leffel favors destinations like Panama, Ecuador and Belize.

5. Cheaper hotel rooms? You got it!
John Boyd, the founder of MeetingWave, an online networking service for business executives, believes hotel room availability and pricing should improve as occupancy rates slide later this year. “Both corporations and individuals are cutting back on travel,” he says. “They should find better deals at domestic travel destinations such as Las Vegas, Miami and New York.” But what about the holidays, when hotels are typically sold out? They’ll still be full, but the chances of finding a last-minute deal through a site that sells distressed room inventory, like Hotwire.com or Priceline.com, will probably be better than it’s been in years. So spending a long New Year’s weekend at a bed and breakfast (New Years Day falls on a Thursday in 2009) may not be out of reach.

Now let me connect a few dots. During the last four months of 2008, prices for almost every travel product could drop. There will be fewer passengers crowding the airport terminals, fewer motorists on the road and fewer people on cruise ships. What’s not to love about that?

This reminds me of the fall of 2001. Right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, travel fell off a figurative cliff. I flew a week after Sept. 11, and truth be told, I haven’t has such a good flight since airline deregulation. I was one of only a few guests in my hotel. The staff and flight attendants were friendly. What a pleasure.

The fact that people are comparing this fall to 2001 gives me hope. It should give all of us hope.

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