July 12, 2008

Variables Are Many No Matter Which Mode of Travel

By Tom Shaw, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

Jul. 12--Years ago, Bing Crosby sang "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

That could be more difficult this year with rising prices for gas and plane tickets.

Experts say to make your holiday plans now, because the cost of plane tickets will only go up as gas prices soar. Tickets to some cities have increased $50 to $100 in just the past few weeks.

Last-minute deals also may be harder to come by this year as airlines reduce the numbers of their flights to save money.

"They may have specials; however, finding space on those (planes) could be very, very difficult," said Dora Bitsos, general manager of Carlson Wagonlit Travel on West Center Road at 84th Street.

Driving your car, taking the train or riding the bus might be more economical ways of getting home for the holidays.

Be prepared, however, to spend a lot more time traveling -- even taking into account that travelers will want to arrive at busy airports early. Depending on how far you need to go, a long haul may not be practical.

Despite the added time, AAA Nebraska expects that more people will consider hitting the road this year.

"We do anticipate that many families will have to look at that option of driving," said AAA spokeswoman Rose White.

Prices for nonstop flights from Omaha, as well as flights with one or two stops, show that it can cost a lot to fly -- especially for a family.

For example, a flight to Minneapolis on United Airlines with one connection was listed at $564 per person on Travelocity.com. For a family of four, that would be more than $2,000 -- and the family may have to rent a car once there.

Driving the family car is cheaper. It costs about $120 in gas for the round trip, given $4-a-gallon gas and a car that gets 25 miles per gallon.

But driving would take twice as long and could force you to burn an extra vacation day, which could be a problem if you have limited time off from work. Also, keep in mind that the price of a driving trip goes up if a late start or bad weather forces you to stop and get a hotel room.

Traveling by train in several cases is less expensive than flying, but the travel time is a lot longer. The Amtrak route to Denver takes nine hours each way, whereas the flight is about an hour and a half one way. That may not be worth it if you're saving only $10 or $20 on the train ticket.

The same is true of the bus. Greyhound lists the length of a bus trip to St. Louis at more than 10 hours one way. And the price is about the same as flying, based on a sampling of prices this week.

Bitsos wasn't sold on the idea that driving is better for the holidays.

"If you have a family of five traveling, obviously it's going to be expensive," Bitsos said of flying. But, she added, "three children in the car for 13 hours is not a pleasant experience."

Another factor to consider, she said, is that ticket prices vary depending on what day you leave. Prices also vary depending on the level of competition for a given route and whether you purchase from an airline or discount ticket site.

But some plane ticket prices don't vary by that much around Christmas, even if you leave several days before the holiday.

White said the weather is a factor no matter whether you drive or fly.

Adding stopovers to a flight can reduce the price of a plane ticket, but the chances increase that you could miss a connection. That's especially true, White said, for connections at airports in parts of the country where the snow can pile up.

"Consider locations that usually aren't impacted by winter months," she said of planning stopovers.

No matter what, experts say individuals and families need to sit down soon and figure out what's most important to them in terms of the expense, time and comfort level of the trip.

"You have to look at your destination," Bitsos said. "You have to look at your family's needs, the flexibility of the people traveling."

--Contact the writer: 444-1149, [email protected]


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