TIME Transportation

5 Ways to Make Thanksgiving Travel More Tolerable

A light-hearted guide to making holiday travel more bearable

Traveling with 41 million people around Thanksgiving is tough, but there’s plenty you can do ahead of time to avoid losing your mind. Below are five steps to take before you even leave for the airport — some of them practical advice about beating the lines and avoiding a mess at the airport, and some of them just involve watching old YouTube videos.

Listen to George Clooney. George Clooney’s frequent-flyer character in Up in the Air delivers a memorable and practical lesson to Anna Kendrick in this Oscar-nominated film. “Never get behind people traveling with infants,” he said. “I’ve never seen a stroller collapse in less than 20 minutes.” Look for people who pack light and won’t hold up the line. If you can, avoid checking your bags — Clooney’s character says that travelers waste 35 minutes per flight waiting for luggage.

Don’t have children. Children require attention and energy. They also cost you extra money and, while they may be tiny humans, they unfortunately cannot be stored in the overhead bins. If you already had children, play the Quiet Game with them. If they’re too old to fall for the Quiet Game, ask them what Taylor Swift would do. Taylor Swift would probably want them to behave. If your children do not care about Taylor Swift, perhaps you should spend Thanksgiving thinking about the job you’re doing as a parent.

Figure out what Thanksgiving foods you can carry on a plane. The TSA wants you to know that they’ve “seen just about everything” when it comes to security checkpoints, so the agency has put together a helpful list of items that can’t go in a carry-on bag. Cranberry sauce, jellies, jams, dips and spreads can’t come through security. Pies can, however, even if they’re gooey inside, though they could be subject to additional screening. (If your pie isn’t gooey inside, make better pie.) Turkeys can also come through the checkpoint either cooked or raw, as long as they’re packed with no more than five pounds of dry ice and aren’t dripping, KSDK reports.

Prepare your entertainment. If you’re looking for movies to a watch as you travel, 22 Jump Street, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and A Most Wanted Man (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last leading role) recently came out on DVD and Blu-ray. A number of notable movies hit Netflix earlier this month, too, including Snowpiercer, Chelsea Peretti’s delightfully weird comedy special, and the seasonally appropriate Happy Christmas (starring Anna Kendrick). Perceptive travelers may point out that the Wi-Fi on planes, trains and buses doesn’t always support Netflix streaming, but that’s okay — you’ll need something to keep busy after you storm away from the dinner table and lock yourself in your childhood bedroom.

Take some love advice from SNL. Speaking of childhood bedrooms: last year the ladies of Saturday Night Live (plus Jimmy Fallon) delivered an important message — when you bring your significant other home for the holidays, there’s a good chance you may have to “do it on [your] twin bed.” Before traveling, you may be interested in revisiting Lil’ Baby Aidy’s crash course in how to get it on without the weirdness.

MONEY holiday travel

5 Strategies for Surviving the Coming Thanksgiving Travel Nightmare

Travelers make their way through security lines at Denver International Airport, November 27, 2013.
RJ Sangosti—Denver Post via Getty Images

With storms threatening to put your holiday travel plans on ice, don't head to the airport unprepared. Instead, go on the defensive with these moves.

Planning to fly home for Turkey Day on Wednesday? With weather reports for Thanksgiving travel looking, well, less than ideal, smart travelers should prepare for a rough day at the airport. These tips will help you get to your destination as quickly as possible, sanity intact.

1. Check in early

During bad weather, oversold flights can be more of a problem, as stranded passengers buy up any open seats.

Your best defense against getting bumped? Checking in online as close to 24 hours ahead of time as possible, according to TripAdvisor travel advocate Wendy Perrin. Not only will you be less likely to lose your seat, but you will also have the best shot of choosing a good one.

2. Know your rights

Did everything right but still got bumped? If the airline rebooks you on a flight that will make you more than an hour late, you’re entitled to a cash or check payment of up to 400% of your one-way fare.

The rules are less clear-cut for delays and cancellations. Airlines are not required to pay for meals or other amenities for delayed passengers, though some do, so it’s worth asking (more on that below). If your flight is cancelled, the airline will typically rebook you on their next available flight. In some cases, carriers may be willing to put you on a flight with a different airline, so check out those options, too.

3. Stay informed in real-time

If you get stuck with a cancellation, don’t just let the airline automatically put you on a different flight. First, check out your options at FlightStats.com, which shows delayed and canceled flights all across the country. There may be a different itinerary that’s a better fit for your schedule.

4. Photograph your valuables

Losing expensive belongings is always upsetting, but tack on a crazy snowstorm and chaotic airport and you have the formula for a nervous breakdown.

Be prepared for the worst by keeping receipts for, and snapshots of, anything pricey in your luggage. Airlines are legally obligated to reimburse up to $3,300 for your lost possessions.

5. Turn on the charm

Whether you’re dealing with lost luggage, delays, a cancelled flight, or any other travel nightmare, it’s important to be as polite as possible when making a complaint.

“Take a deep breath. Remember that despite everything that has happened, you are still alive and, in fact, breathing. Then come talk to me and explain your situation,” writes flight attendant Cary Trey at ThePointsGuy.com.

Going a step beyond politeness and being extra kind to the person you’re dealing with—who, let’s face it, has probably been having a pretty bad day, too—can’t hurt. Trey suggests carrying mini-boxes of chocolates to show gratitude to those who go the extra mile to help you out.

If that sounds like a bit much, even a simple, “Thank you so much for your help, and happy Thanksgiving!” will be enough make you stand out from the grumbling masses.

 

TIME Travel

How to Keep Your Cool Traveling With 41 Million People

thanksgiving airport
Vincenzo Lombardo—Getty Images

If you have to travel this Thanksgiving

There are going to be some 41 million people in motion before and after Thanksgiving, unless they are stopped cold by the weather gods. Looking at the National Weather Service’s color-coded alert map, the glob of warning colors running from Washington D.C. to Maine might be described as Cancelation Red rather than a winter storm warning. It’s gonna be ugly, folks. And inside the crowded airports, lots of passengers who really don’t fly all that much—this is a weekend for amateurs—will be cluelessly waiting in line for the airlines that just canceled their flights to reroute them.

You don’t want to be one of these people. If you are standing on a line, it’s probably already too late to get re-accommodated quickly.

MORE: Inside the strange world of airline cancellations

No matter the forecast, you should always have a Plan B in mind when you travel. Even if you’re not a frequent flier, download the app for the airline you are taking so it can text you with updates. There are also apps such as Flight Aware that will send you alerts—and you can also see how well the entire system is performing. Increasingly, the airlines will rebook you automatically if you give them the opportunity. This happened to me last year while reporting on a story about cancelations—although that 3 a.m. phone call could have waited. Nevertheless, this automatic “reaccomm” as the carriers call it, can be really helpful.

But if the situation goes south when you’re at the airport, you need to figure out your options in advance. Flights are so full that in the event of a cancelation, rebooking the next direct flight might not be possible. Look for connections. Consider the mid-country hubs that might help get you where you are going: Houston, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Chicago, one of them is bound to have decent weather.

MORE: Holiday travelers rejoice! Thanksgiving gas prices will be the lowest in years

You need to be proactive. When my flight from Tokyo to New York was canceled by a big, disruptive East Coast hurricane a couple of years ago, the carrier offered to fly me to Los Angeles—where I would be stuck for three days waiting for an available flight. I started to look to build unscheduled connections that could get me farther east. By going hub to hub to hub (LAX-ORD-DCA), I got close enough to home so that I could drive or take a train.

MORE: Download these 7 holiday travel apps to get home in time for turkey

Having lots of experience with airline calamity has taught me the scramble drill. You need to be armed with enough knowledge so that in the event you actually do have to deal with an airline agent, you can get what you want, not what they are offering. Be firm and insistent to make your point but don’t scream at airline employees; you can communicate your ire in a civil tone and get better results.

Here are a few other tips for peak travel weeks:

No, you can’t bring that on board

If you don’t travel much, go to TSA’s website to figure out exactly what you can or can’t bring through the security checkpoint. Hint: weapons are a no-no.

Know your rights ahead of time

Every carrier posts a Contract of Carriage (here’s Delta’s, for instance) that explains terms and obligations pertaining to your ticket. Pay particular attention to Rule 240 or its equivalent, which covers delays and cancelations. All the carriers have a Contingency Plan for Lengthy Tarmac Delays, too.

Consider checking a bag

It’s amazing to watch people trying to lug so much stuff onto chock full jets. You hate paying $25 to check a bag, as you should. But the fewer points of friction you create for yourself, the calmer you are going to be on board. And the more space you’ll have under your feet. Keep in mind that very few bags are mishandled.

Consider travel insurance, which can sometimes be purchased last minute

The airlines have now dumped all the travel risk on you: Your airfare is non-refundable, and if weather scratches your flight, you’re on your own if you need to find food and lodging. Travel insurance offsets those risks, but at a price, typically about 5% of the trip cost. The higher the cost, the better the case for insurance, which will pay off from everything from flight delays to emergency cancelations on your part. Seek independent, third party insurers rather than airlines or travel agencies.

Try to roll with it. Easier said than done, yes. People—both adults and kids—tend to lose it more quickly in airports, because we’re not in control of anything. It’s beyond frustrating. If you are traveling without kids, you might make some new friends at the bar—or at the increasing number of “private” lounges open to the public for a $35 fee. (Which includes drinks.) If you are traveling with kids, you might not. Just remember, somewhere in that airport somebody else’s kids are behaving worse than yours.

So if you are one of the 41 million, bon voyage.

As for me, I’m staying put. You have to be crazy to travel on Thanksgiving.

Read next: 5 Ways to Be an Airplane Aggravation

TIME Gadgets

5 Must-Have Gadgets for Every Traveler’s Go-Bag

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Young man in airport Image Source—Getty Images/Image Source

Fill your daypack—and fuel your adventure—with these mobile must-haves

One reason smartphones are great is because with all the tools that their apps pack, the handheld devices have whittled down the gear you have to lug around on adventures. So now — instead of courier bags, carry-on luggage, and backpacks — the “go-bag” is the only carryall you need.

Loaded with items to keep your life powered up, connected, and protected, this action-packed adventure sack is just big enough to hold what you need and so small that it won’t slow you down. Is your go-bag running on empty? Here are five, great, tiny gadgets to keep it charged up and ready for anything:

Bose QuietComfort 20i Headphones

Whether you’re cruising at 30,000 feet or zipping around in a subway under the city, you’ll likely want to blast a soundtrack for your travels. These in-ear headphones not only pour sweet sounds into your earholes, but they also boast noise-canceling technology to keep the outside world from invading your headspace.

Positioning microphones both inside the ear and out into the surroundings, these earbuds collect noise data which is processed and used to send an “opposite signal” to your aural canal. Or, at the push of a button, you can turn this off and get the sound piped in — so you don’t miss that boarding call or subway stop. At $299, these can be pricey for a pair of earbuds, but seasoned travelers swear by them and audiophiles give them high marks, too.

Garmin HUD+

Slow down, Doc Brown — where you’re going, there are definitely going to be roads. This $179 heads-up display pairs with iPhones and Android handsets to beam turn-by-turn directions from Garmin and Navigon apps. A great device for popping onto the dashboard of a rental car, the HUD+ projects the apps’ directions onto the windshield in front of you — so you don’t have to precariously balance your smartphone on the dash, in the instrument panel, or on your lap while driving unfamiliar roads in the dark. Easy to read, the display even tells you the speed limit, your expected time of arrival, and what lane you should be in before making the next turn. It’s a pretty bright idea for a dim little projector.

Karma 4G Mobile Hotspot

When getting online is on-par with going outside, the only answer is a solid mobile Internet hotspot. Karma’s upcoming new 4G device is smaller than a wallet but pulls down as much as 25 megabits per second, allowing up to eight laptops, tablets, and even iPod Touches to connect to the web simultaneously.

Running on pre-paid data ($14 per gigabyte), the $149 battery-powered connectivity accessory is great for keeping a car-load of kids connecting to the web while on a road trip, so they keep their hands to themselves and their Instagrams shared with friends. #thanksdad

Olympus Tough Cameras

Underwater, on a zip-line, in an open-air cockpit: these are all places that you’d love to take unforgettable photos and video footage, but settings where you should never, ever take your smartphone. Instead — for these and other dangerous-to-tech circumstances — Olympus has a pair of great point-and-shoot cameras that should be in your arsenal.

The $349 Olympus TG-3 is their top-of-the-line offering, with a eye-popping 16 mega-pixel image sensor, Wi-Fi-control capabilities (if you must use your phone for something), waterproofing to 50 feet, and freeze-proofing to 14 degrees Fahrenheit—making it great for both hiking and ski trails. Meanwhile, the $199 Olympus TG-850 will only survive dives up to 33 feet, but has the same image sensor and offers a flip-around rear touchscreen, ideal for mastering underwater scuba selfies.

Travel Card Charger:

Portable batteries can be life savers when your battery is about to bite the dust. But otherwise, they’re just dead weight, taking up space, getting in the way, and, oh yeah, draining ever-so-slowly as they sit around unused. While nothing can be done about the latter, Travel Card takes care of the former with super-slim dimensions that let it easily slip into a pocket or even a wallet.

Its 1500 milliamp hour portable battery won’t quite fill an iPhone 6 to capacity, but with an Apple-certified lightning cable integrated into the unit, at least you won’t have to chase around looking for a power cord. And the versatile $39 battery pack also comes in a micro-USB variety, in case you need to juice your Android device instead.

TIME Aviation

This Is Who Decides Whether Your Flight Takes Off This Week

Chicago's O'Hare Airport Snarled In Ground Stops After Fire At FAA Building
Passengers wait in line to reschedule flights at O'Hare International Airport on September 26, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson—Getty Images

Meet the Cancellator

With the rush of Thanksgiving travel and potentially bad weather, there’s a few people who will have the tougher-than-usual job this week of figuring out which unlucky flights must be cancelled this holiday season.

Meet the men and women operating the Cancellator, a computer system that decides whether or not you’ll be scrambling to make it home for Turkey Day. The Cancellator and systems like it use an algorithm with some human input to decide which flights to delay or cancel in order to preserve as much of an airline’s original schedule as possible. The program’s ultimate goal is to nix flights well ahead of time, that way airlines can notify passengers of the changes before they head out for the airport — giving customers time to make alternate plans.

Want to know more about the software and employees deciding to cancel your flight? Read TIME’s March 3, 2014 cover story on airline cancellations here.

TIME weather

Thanksgiving Travel Will Be Snarled by Snow

Bad Weather Driving
Dan Barnes—Getty Images

Roads north and west of I-95 will likely be blanketed by snow Wednesday night, and the National Weather Service says the New York area could see 6 to 10 in. of snow. Travelers should expect clogged roads and airport delays up and down the east coast into Thursday

Hate to break it to you, but if you are traveling anywhere on the East Coast this Thanksgiving, you may have a tough road ahead of you. Snow and ice is expected from New England to Georgia on Wednesday, which promises to snarl traffic on one of the busiest travel days of the year.

According to the Weather Channel, roads north and west of I-95 are likely to be blanketed by snow Wednesday night, and the National Weather Service says the New York area could see 6-10 inches of snow. Travelers should expect clogged roads and airport delays all up and down the eastern seaboard from Wednesday into Thursday morning.

Four-wheel drive is always something to be thankful for.

MONEY consumer psychology

Why JetBlue Can Break Your Heart, but Comcast Never Will

JetBlue Planes
Seth Wenig—AP

It hurts to find out that brands like JetBlue want you to love them—but they only love you for your money.

This week, JetBlue announced it’s adding more seats on planes and new fees for checked baggage. The moves are clearly aimed at hiking profits—which is what businesses are supposed to do, right?

So why, then, has JetBlue’s policy change been met with outrage and a sense of betrayal? Isn’t JetBlue just a business that’s, you know, in the business of making money? Shouldn’t we fully expect these kind of profit-first policies? And if this kind of behavior is to be expected, why would there ever be any sense of surprise or disappointment, let alone heartbreak?

The subject brings to mind the old fable “The Farmer and the Viper,” in which a farmer nurses a freezing snake back to health—and is then promptly bitten and killed by the snake as soon as it has the opportunity. The moral is that you shouldn’t be surprised, and you certainly shouldn’t feel betrayed, when a snake behaves like a snake. A similar takeaway comes from the disturbing 2005 documentary “Grizzly Man,” which tells the tale of a man and his girlfriend who were killed, in essence, because a bear behaved like a bear.

The complication is that consumers don’t necessarily view brands that we interact with regularly as animals that will take advantage of us whenever the opportunity arises. We’re encouraged to “like” brands on Facebook, and marketers spend billions to try to get us to love brands, ideally with a cult-like fervor. We tend to view favorite brands as trusted partners or even friends, and we can feel violated and betrayed to the core when the terms of what can be a very warm partnership are exposed as more “strictly business,” to quote The Godfather.

“Some brands are so good at connecting with consumers on an emotional level that the relationship feels incredibly personal, much like a friendship,” explains Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and TIME and MONEY contributor. “In most cases the consumers feel they share the same values as the brand, which they see as manifesting human characteristics.”

This certainly seems the case for JetBlue and its longtime customers. The brand resonated and indeed became beloved because of the perks (free TVs and snacks for everyone) and amenities (leather seats and plenty of legroom all around) as much as because of its overriding ethos that all customers were valued—and valued equally. What helped make JetBlue stand out and become an industry darling is that its competitors in the airline business are notorious for exceptionally poor customer service, especially in regards to passengers who are paying the least for their flights.

Slowly, though, JetBlue tweaked its business model—adding a business class and adding more fees recently—and with this week’s announcement about shrinking legroom and the addition of baggage fees, it’s clear that the values originally embraced by the brand have changed as well. For the people who loved and were loyal to JetBlue specifically because of its egalitarian, customers-first approach, the latest moves serve as a big slap in the face with the cold-hearted reality that shouldn’t really come as a surprise, but hurts nonetheless: Brands like JetBlue want you to love them, but they only love you for your money.

Experts who study marketing and company-consumer relationships believe that brands that have developed cult-like followings for supposedly doing things the right and honorable way—Chipotle and Whole Foods come to mind—are likely to feel greater backlash if and when they appear to violate customers’ trust. “Our theory is that the people who feel most betrayed are the ones who were most attached to the brand in the first place,” says Debbie MacInnis, a marketing professor at the USC Marshall School of Business who is researching brand betrayal with colleagues.

By and large, consumers tend to get most attached to scrappy smaller brands with a streak of independence—brands they can identify with and feel good about supporting. “We love underdog stories,” says MacInnis. “We see ourselves as underdogs. We love the little guy, so there’s a natural brand connection.” It’s a connection that goes beyond a mere mutually beneficial economic transaction.

On the other hand, brands that are monolithic and fail to develop long-lasting loyalty or affection—big banks, pay TV and wireless providers, and yes, airlines come to mind—are less at risk of betraying customers’ trust because there was little to no trust to begin with. “You’re not likely to feel betrayed when a cable company treats you poorly,” says MacInnis. “You’ll shake it off and jump” to a competitor without blinking (assuming another one is actually available). “The transgressions are par for the course.”

It’s all about expectations: When someone we thought of as a friend turns out to be just another snake, it’s heartbreaking. Hence, the presence of several “Et Tu, JetBlue?” headlines out there, indicating that the once beloved airline’s betrayal is one of epic proportions.

“When consumers sense they’ve been used or manipulated they feel a burn more similar to a human betrayal than simple transactional disappointment,” says Yarrow. However, bigger, widely bashed brands are “lucky” enough to disappoint customers so frequently that there’s no surprise or sense of betrayal when they make yet another profit-first, customer-unfriendly move. “Consumers have such low expectations of Comcast, for example, they are thrilled when there simply aren’t problems.”

MONEY Airlines

A New Era Has Begun for JetBlue, and Travelers Will Hate It

Customers check in at JetBlue's counter at John F. Kennedy Airport in the Queens borough of New York City.
Andrew Burton—Getty Images

At JetBlue, legroom is disappearing and checked baggage will soon cost extra. In other words, the airline you fell in love with is following the playbook of airlines that everyone hates.

When word spread back in September that JetBlue CEO Dave Barger was stepping down from his post in early 2015, two interesting things happened: 1) The company stock soared, rising 5% immediately after the news; and 2) travelers who loved JetBlue for its customers-first policies began to panic.

As Fortune put it, equity analysts tended to view Barger “as being ‘overly concerned’ with passengers and their comfort, which they feel, has come at the expense of shareholders.” With Barger and his pesky, stubbornly customer-friendly policies out of the way, JetBlue—under the leadership of new CEO, former British Airways executive Robin Hayes—could hop on the pathway to higher and higher profits by implementing more fees and cost-cutting measures on par with other airlines.

Consequently, the change at the top was welcomed by investors and dreaded by flyers and travel advocates who loved JetBlue specifically because it didn’t engage in the very nickel-and-diming policies analysts were pushing for. Even before it was announced that Barger was out, Marketwatch foresaw the likelihood that JetBlue would soon begin “putting customers second,” while first and foremost pleasing investors by jacking up fees and cutting back on amenities. Frequent flyer expert Tim Winship described Barger’s departure as “the beginning of the end for JetBlue as we know it,” while noting the risks inherent in the airline’s likely policy shift:

Such changes would be wrenching for JetBlue loyalists, for whom the roomier seating and relative absence of nuisance fees have been key reasons to book JetBlue over the competition. Even the number-crunchers acknowledge that a remodeled JetBlue would jeopardize the considerable brand equity the airline has built up over the years.

Nonetheless, this week JetBlue announced that it is reducing average legroom and introducing a new fare structure that means passengers buying the lowest-price tickets will have to pay extra if they want to check luggage. The changes, which will be instituted starting in 2015, will leave Southwest Airlines as the only domestic carrier to grant free checked bags (two of them, in fact) for all passengers.

Shrinking legroom will come as a result of 15 more seats being added to JetBlue’s Airbus A320 planes. Even after squeezing in the new rows of seats, JetBlue’s average legroom will be 33.1 inches, which is still slightly more than what the typical passenger on Southwest or Virgin America can expect. The real heartbreaker to travelers is likely to be the new “Fare Families” structure, which consists of three bundled options that travelers must choose from when booking a flight. At the low end of the pricing spectrum, tickets do not include a checked bag. Passengers who pay higher fares are entitled to checked bags (one at the middle level, two at the high end), and also get bonus loyalty points.

Exact details on pricing and what specific amenities are and aren’t included in the various fares haven’t been released yet. JetBlue became immensely popular among travelers for perks including free snacks and free entertainment on seatback screens. Presumably, even at the low end JetBlue passengers will get more than the “Bare Fares” of Spirit Airlines, which include with almost nothing other than basic transportation—even water and seat reservations cost extra. But JetBlue’s moves certainly seem inspired by the example set by Spirit, which is widely known as one of the simultaneously most hated and most profitable airlines.

JetBlue’s changes are clearly aimed at pleasing investors—shares of the company stock jumped more than 4% on Wednesday, nearing a seven-year high—but Hayes, currently the airline’s president, still claimed that the company was focused on delivering “the best travel experience for our customers.” In a statement accompanying JetBlue’s press release, Hayes is also quoted saying that JetBlue remains different from the pack. “As we focus on executing this plan,” Hayes said, “JetBlue’s core mission to Inspire Humanity and its differentiated model of serving underserved customers remain unchanged.”

Travelers seem to feel quite differently about the matter. The very active traveler community at the Flyertalk forum has been bashing the changes because they remove what made JetBlue special and worth seeking out, and turn the carrier into just another (hated, annoying, nickel-and-diming) carrier. “Lovely. The ‘We’ll attract more customers by being exactly like every other airline’ move,” commented one Flyertalk member. “Charging for bags and a crappy FF [frequent flier] program? What a combo!” commented another. “Seriously though, they’ve completely lost their appeal.”

Another highlighted how Southwest will soon be the only major domestic carrier including free checked bags with flights: “Now, especially if I have a bag, Southwest will be the way to go…and I hate Southwest.”

TIME Aviation

JetBlue Is Cutting Legroom From Its Planes

JetBlue Airways Corp. planes sit docked at the gates of Terminal 5 as another of the company's jets lands at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Jan. 28, 2014.
JetBlue Airways Corp. planes sit docked at the gates of Terminal 5 as another of the company's jets lands at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Jan. 28, 2014. Craig Warga—Bloomberg/Getty Images

And the base fare will not include a checked bag

Jetblue said Wednesday it will reduce leg room and add bag fees for fliers who buy tickets on base fares.

The traditionally low-cost airline, under pressure from investors to boost profits, announced in a call with analysts that it is adding fare levels next year. The new base fare will not include a checked bag.

The airline also said it will reduce average legroom from 34.7 inches to 33.1 inches—still, it says, an industry leader—to allow it to add 15 seats to its standard A320 aircraft beginning in 2016.

JetBlue and Southwest Airlines have until now been the only large U.S. airlines that provide a free checked bag for all fliers, the Wall Street Journal reports.

MONEY Airlines

The Greatest Airline You’ve Never Flown Is Going Public This Week

Virgin America airplane in flight
Herb Lingl—Aerial Archives

If you've never flown on Virgin America—or never even heard of it—you're not alone. The carrier, which is always among the country's top-rated airlines, has an IPO set to take off this week.

For most of its existence, Virgin America, the U.S. offshoot of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, has been the equivalent of a TV show that’s beloved by critics and viewers but has trouble attracting a large enough audience to be a true success. The airline, which began flying out of a San Francisco hub in 2007, has lost tons of money year after year, even while it routinely nabbed top honors among domestic airlines for having the best combination of service and amenities. Virgin America remains a beloved darling among travelers, who enjoy the leather seats, wi-fi, seatback screens with live TV, and power outlets available to all passengers on all planes. It was named the country’s best domestic airline by Travel and Leisure readers for 2014, marking the seventh year in a row Virgin America has held the top spot. The fares are often very good too, with deals like San Francisco to Los Angeles from $69 each way and San Francisco to Boston starting at $179.

Nonetheless, only a small portion of travelers actually have firsthand experience with the airline. For all of 2013, Virgin America carried a total of roughly 6.2 million passengers. Southwest Airlines, by contrast, was responsible for transporting 108 million passengers last year. Even though Virgin America has expanded its route network over the years, recently adding Dallas-Love to its roster of destinations as one example, the carrier still only serves 13 U.S. metropolitan areas. What’s more, many of its connections come up short in the convenience department. For instance, Virgin America has service to both Austin and Las Vegas, but if you want to book a flight between the two cities with the airline, you’ll have to fly by way of San Francisco.

There has been plenty of skepticism about whether or not Virgin America can have a successful run in the U.S. marketplace. “I’m surprised it has survived this long, given the huge losses accumulated to date,” Scott Hamilton, managing director of aviation consulting firm Leeham Co., said in 2012. “I don’t really see a place in the market for Virgin America.”

And yet the airline is alive and apparently doing quite well today, with an IPO planned for this week. As Businessweek and others have noted, the timing of the public offering couldn’t be better: The Virgin America IPO is taking place at a high point for the airline business, with strong demand and cheap fuel prices helping carriers to pull in record profits. Speaking of which, after a long string of quarters noting loss after loss, Virgin America has been in the black of late as well, recording a net profit of $60.2 million through the first nine months of 2014, up from a loss of $4 million for the same period the year before.

In its planned IPO, Virgin America is expected to sell more than 13 million shares starting at a price of $21 to $24. Should investors buy in? That’s a gamble. Airline stocks have had an extraordinary run in 2014, but there’s no telling if the upward trajectory will continue. We just hope that at some point, more travelers get to fly on what sounds like a pretty terrific airline.

 

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