It's a time-worn holiday tradition: You drag yourself to the airport, stand in the security line for hours, cram yourself onto a crowded plane and pay through the nose for the right to do so.
If recent data is correct, though, holiday travel in general is becoming something more Americans are deciding they can – or have to – do without.
"Holiday travel has been one of the most resilient traditions of Americans," said Rick Garlick, senior director of consulting and strategic implementation for marketing company Maritz. Yet with the economy still in the gutter and unemployment high, a poll Maritz conducted found record-low numbers of people will travel this holiday season.
Just 21 percent of those polled planned to travel for the holidays this year, down from 28 percent in 2010. "When you project that over millions of Americans, it's pretty significant," Garlick said.
People taking flights out of Chicago might be in the biggest pickle – prices are high, even though fewer people are flying, according to Mark Murphy, a travel writer and president and CEO of Travel Alliance.
The biggest issue with travel this year is air[fare]," he said. "There are fewer seats … Add supply and demand, and you are paying a huge premium to fly."
A recent search showed a roundtrip nonstop flight from O'Hare to LAX from Dec. 23 to 26 costs about $560 on United Airlines and a roundtrip flight from Midway to New York's LaGuardia Airport on Southwest for the same time period would be about $660. Flying from Midway to Atlanta on Delta runs about $340 for the same dates.
Add to the stress of high prices an increasingly rough airport experience, with full-body X-rays and pat-downs, and it's like a mixed-martial arts contest of traveler vs. the world. To help with this year's trip, RedEye stacks up tips for navigating the modern-day jungle that is holiday travel out of Chicago.
BUY THOSE TICKETS: According to cheapflights.com, you don't have to buy your holiday tickets months in advance. People who snag theirs in early December might get the best deals. But no, it's probably not the best idea to wait until the day of.
CHECK TRANSPORTATION: Looking for an exit strategy? Ohare.com shows delays on the Blue and Orange lines, as well as real-time traffic, weather and parking updates.
SLOW? JUST SAY NO: According to CTA maps, the Blue Line from Forest Park to O'Hare has slow zones, areas where trains have to go slower because it could be unsafe to hit higher speeds. The Orange Line, on the other hand, is 100 percent slow-zone-free. The CTA reports about 5 percent of the Blue Line tracks are slow zones.
RESEARCH! If you're already on your way to the airport, it's probably too late to do anything about checked bag fees. But you can save (literally) a buck or two by paying online. According to airfarewatchdog.com, fees for one checked bag are: AirTran: $15, American/Virgin America/Delta: $25, United/Continental/US Air: $25 (save $2 by paying online) and JetBlue/Southwest: $0.
FLY OUT OF MIDWAY: If there's an option, or if Midway's the way you're already headed, good news: There are a few benefits to the South Side airport. The Tribune reports Midway boasts a (tiny) edge over O'Hare in on-time arrivals (74.4 vs. 67.6 percent), arrival delays (14.2 vs. 18.8 minutes), on-time holiday departures (76.4 vs. 72.1 percent) and average security wait time (7 minutes vs. 9 minutes).
EAT IN: Schlepping carry-on bags, books, laptop and a coat to the food court in the airport? Not necessarily necessary anymore. If you're flying out of O'Hare and have an Android phone or iPhone, you can download "B4 You Board," an app that allows you to get your food delivered to your gate. Your options aren't unlimited, and they don't deliver to every gate in Terminal 3, but it could come in handy.
FINE TIME? Be on the watch for delays. Earlier this month, American Eagle was fined $900,000 for breaking rules that prohibited keeping passengers stuck on the tarmac for too long, the first time legislation on the much-hated practice has been put to use. "We put the tarmac rule in place to protect passengers, and we take any violation very seriously," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a post on the Department of Transportation's web site.
GO TO SLEEP: Stuck in an airport overnight? Try to catch some shuteye. The 2011 worst airports in North America to sleep in, according to the Budget Traveller's Guide to Sleeping in Airports (yes that's an actual thing), are: 1. Los Angeles, 2. New York City LaGuardia, 3. Newark, 4. New York City JFK, 5. Miami.
JET SETTER? The Centers for Disease Control And Prevention says you can take some steps to avoid jet lag or lessen its effect on you. The CDC web site urges you to drink water (duh), move around and sleep during flights (hard to do both, though) and avoid caffeine, alcohol and big meals (perfect advice for the holidays, right?).
DEALING: The CDC has some extremely specific advice about how long you can expect to be suffering the ill effects of a flight. According to their site, "after eastward flights, jet lag lasts for the number of days roughly equal to two-thirds the number of time zones crossed; after westward flights, the number of days is roughly half the number of time zones."
ggarvey@Tribune.com | @gcgarvey