Thanksgiving travel: Make your air reservations now

Even though summer isn't over yet, for those of you who travel over Thanksgiving, it is already time to start thinking about booking your flights.

Thanksgiving is one of the busiest flying times of the year and this year there are going to be a lot fewer flights available. In an effort to save on costs and in hopes of being able to raise prices, airlines are cutting back on the number of flights they offer. American airlines is shrinking its flight capacity in its main US markets by up to 12% in the Fall and United by up to 16.5%. (Southwest just announced it would cut 200 flights, or about 6%, but not till January, 2009).

Travelers in certain markets will find the cuts much more severe than those percentages imply. If you are used to taking a direct flight, from, let's say, Albany to Chicago on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, you will have half the amount of flights to choose from -- four this year, down from eight last year, according to a report from USA Today. From Boston to Chicago there are three fewer flights, from San Diego there are two fewer flights, and from Pittsburgh there are six fewer direct flights on that route that day.If you don't book early, you may have to make a connecting flight. That means twice the potential to run into flight cancellations or delays and much more hassle to get to your ultimate destination. Since Thanksgiving trips are often short, you don't want to waste two days of it stuck in the airport.

Another reason to feel pressure is that airlines will no doubt push through price increases if availability gets tight. You may get your best deal now.

Of course, given tighter family budgets, there may be fewer travelers this year, offsetting the decrease in flights and wrecking airlines' hopes of raising prices. But my advice is to play it safe and book your trip now.

Some other tips for stress-free Thanksgiving travel:
- Try to avoid peak travel days (get there early, leave Friday, for example)
- Consider alternate airports to the city's main hub (Westchester for New York, Providence for Boston -- you get the idea).
- Don't check your bags. Either pack light enough for carry-on or ship your bags ahead using a courier service.
- Check in and print your boarding pass at home from your computer.
- Bring entertainment for the kids: Card games, coloring books, perhaps a portable DVD player.
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