7 ways airlines ruin Thanksgiving — and what we can do to fight back

7 ways airlines ruin Thanksgiving — and what we can do to fight back
© Greg Nash

During this record-breaking Thanksgiving travel season, an estimated 31.6 million people are expected to fly, and we can count on the airlines making those experiences an absolute nightmare.

Here are seven ways airlines ruin holiday travel — and a few ideas about what we can do to fight back.

First, as if the pain of enduring Thanksgiving air travel were not enough, airlines enjoy adding to the misery by overbooking their flights. The thought process is that passengers do not always notify the airlines of changes to their travel plans, so in order to increase their chances of dispatching a full silver revenue tube, flights could be overbooked by as much as 10 percent.

As travelers, we can protect ourselves by ensuring we have a seat assignment, as simply having a reservation is not enough protection against the airlines who overbook. Passengers who arrive at the gate of departure without a seat assignment are placed on stand-by as the gate agents attempt to secure a seat. During the hectic days of holiday travel, never arrive at the gate without a seat assignment. 


Many passengers are surprised to discover that airlines can release our seats if we are not at the gate of departure 20 minutes before the door is scheduled to close.

Second, airlines raise the price of their fares during the holiday travel season. They call it “market demand,” but most of us call it price gouging during a time when airlines know passengers will pay almost anything to make the annual pilgrimage to grandma’s house. 

We can fight back against their greed by snagging our tickets early. By early I mean ten or eleven months early, while many of the super discounted fares are still available. Once our reservation is made, we protect ourselves against future fare increases and airlines are denied the opportunity to overcharge us.

Third, airlines more readily delay or cancel flights during the packed holiday travel season. This hurts because so few seats (if any) are available to accommodate the affected passengers. 

While there is little we can do to eliminate the delays and cancellations, we can increase our chances of seeing an on-time departure by catching the originating flight, or the first flight of the day. Airlines place a higher emphasis on dispatching flights early in the day than at any other time, because if the first flight is delayed, all subsequent flights that aircraft will be used for could also be late. 


The fourth zinger for airlines is when they throw in an unexpected equipment change, as when one aircraft is substituted for another at the last minute. The danger here is that many times the pre-assigned seats do not carry over and you could be looking at being placed on stand-by, not having an assigned seat.

An incredible resource for travelers is flightaware.com, where we can track the progress of the aircraft as it approaches our airport and prepares to depart. Contained within the detailed information is the specific aircraft being used. We can compare that aircraft against the data airlines have provided at the time our itinerary was first created. 

The fifth painful way airlines ruin our holiday travel is with seat surprises. It might be a seat that does not recline or one absent a power source, which is just enough to make the three-hour flight seem even longer.

But there are websites that will allow us to avoid these unpleasant surprises. The sites can be used by simply providing the airline and flight number, which then displays a color-coded seat chart showing the most and least desired seats. It arms even the most casual traveler with some powerful information.   

The sixth way airlines ruin our Thanksgiving is with a delayed or lost bag. Sometimes this is the result of a passenger playing the “Let’s see how close we can cut it!” game and arriving at the airport too close to departure. The extra long lines also come as a shock, as if they thought no one else was going to be flying. 

Help the airlines by arriving two hours before departure during the Thanksgiving holiday. It also pays to have a name tag on each bag, as well as a copy of your itinerary placed inside the bag (last item packed). This will not only show the airline representative the bag’s owner, but will also show the itinerary. Lazy airline agents are also guilty of telling passengers with missing bags that their luggage will be on the next flight and there is “no need” to fill out any paperwork. 

If the bag never arrives, most airlines will require the claim be filled out within four hours of arrival. Failure to fill out a claim could result in losing out on your compensation. Never leave the airport without a Delayed Bag Report being filled out.

The seventh way airlines destroy our holiday travel is by literally destroying our luggage. Much as with a delayed bag, take time to have the report filled out before departing the baggage claim area. Since most airline agents will classify your damage as normal wear and tear, taking a quick video of the entire bag prior to departure could assist.

It is also important to remember that airlines will never reimburse us for any articles that are considered fragile, and it is always best to review your specific airline’s website for all of the details surrounding luggage acceptance to avoid any misunderstanding. 

Years ago a country singer had his expensive guitar damaged by United Airlines, and they stood by their policy and denied the claim. The singer decided, in an act of revenge, to write a song “United Breaks Guitars” and it went viral, with more than 20 million views.

As a final way to protect yourself against the terrors of holiday travel, a quick visit to TSA.GOV can acquaint a traveler with any recent changes to the security process. 

The Thanksgiving travel season may not be for the faint of heart. But by being armed with a few key travel tips, we can make the experience a bit easier to take.

Jay Ratliff spent over 20 years in management with Northwest/Republic Airlines, including as aviation general manager. He is an iHeart aviation analyst.