Why We Endure Hectic Holiday Travel


NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Jam-packed terminals, reduced capacity, delayed flights, innumerable fees. It's not holiday travel, it's masochism.

Why do travelers do this to themselves on an annual basis? According to SmarterTravel, anyone trying not to be frustrated to the point of violence this holiday season likely should have booked when airlines started offering deals around Labor Day. While carriers including JetBlue ($31 one way), Southwest ($30 one way) and AirTran ($44 one way) were offering deals this week, capacity cuts implemented at the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008 are still in place and inflating prices along with fees. Yet travelers are expected to be out in force this holiday season, mostly because they're running out of excuses.

Roughly 9% of those refusing holiday travel this year say it's because the process is a bit too hectic for their liking, according to American Express.

"For the past two years, people didn't travel as much for the holidays," says Anne Banas, an analyst for SmarterTravel. "We saw with summer travel that people who postponed vacation for two years took a vacation this year, and we'll be seeing some of that with holiday travel."

The biggest reason folks will be traveling this holiday season is the same one driving fatigued family members toward snaking ticket lines and surly baggage handlers every other year: Guilt. Of the 39% of Americans that American Express' Spending and Saving Tracker says will travel this holiday season, 64% will do so to see family. Of those, 24% feel obliged to see their relatives and 16% feel the need to preserve their brood's holiday tradition. Though 77% of those travelers are still being pinched by the economy and are looking to save, 50% of those savers will do so by getting into close quarters with those they're visiting and staying with family and friends instead of in a hotel.

This is likely how 2% decided to travel this year to get away from those same friends and family.

Meanwhile, the 61% staying put this holiday season put up a good argument for doing so. About 30% don't have the money to travel, which isn't surprising considering that the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics says revenue from various fees has reached $1.1 billion, up $141 million since 2008. That includes holiday surcharges by American Airlines, Continental Airlines, US Airways, Delta Airlines and United Airlines that cover every day between Nov. 19 and Jan. 3 that isn't Thanksgiving or Christmas -- with levies ranging from $10 to $30.

Even less mindblowing is that roughly 9% of those staying home feel that holiday travel is just a bit too hectic for their liking. Oh really? Domestic flights that the DOT says were 81.1% full last year were a bit less merry than the 72.9% full flights that passengers grew accustomed to in 2000? Airline overbooking that increased passengers denied entry ("bumped" in the standard parlance) by 8.4% between 2007 and last year, to more than 62,000 -- even though overall passenger numbers only increased 1.8% -- isn't a cherished part of the holiday ritual? Has anyone told the airlines this?

Perhaps this is why only 6% of passengers still have enough energy to travel elsewhere to watch the clock strike midnight on New Year's Eve -- down 12% from last year. Like the 2% fleeing their families, those who've decided to sit out the champagne and streamers seem to be seeking just one thing: a stress-free holiday season. "People who aren't visiting family are realizing it's the offseason and, if they haven't taken vacation in a few years, they're taking advantage and going," Banas says.

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