Airport Tips for Summer Travelers

Here's where you don't want to spend your summer vacation: on the tarmac at JFK. Or sitting at the gate in O'Hare. Or waiting around in Detroit, Charlotte or any of the other stressed-out airports that are helping to make this air-travel season the worst ever. With a record 209 million passengers expected, most planes are full. Any slowdown—due to bad weather, oversold flights or mechanical problems—can escalate into a marathon layover. Even before the summer crush, almost one in every four domestic flights was delayed, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. At the busiest airports, the rate approached twice that, and most experts say problems are underreported.

Airport horror stories are proliferating online. Ft. Worth, Texas, Web designer Robert McKee documented his 10 hours in airplane hell in a YouTube video ("Delta Flight 6499") that's painful to watch. He and his fellow nontravelers spent seven hours on the tarmac with no food but plenty of crying babies—the result of unspecified weather and mechanical problems. (Delta has apologized and offered the passengers vouchers.) The situation isn't likely to improve soon. The airlines say the problem lies in insufficient air routes and an antiquated air-traffic-control system. The controllers' union says it's short-handed. Passenger advocates like Kate Hanni of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights are throwing their hands in the air: "Just take high-speed rail," she says. Since that's not usually practical, here's how to make sure you don't end up vacationing at the airport.

Research before you buy your ticket. Avoid the busiest airports and the busiest times, even if you have to drive a little bit farther. The Web site of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (natca.org) offers airport-specific reports on how to avoid delays, like "fly mornings at JFK, weekends at Logan." At flightstats.com, you can check the specific flights you are considering and see their record of on-time departures and cancellations. Also check avoiddelays.com, which publishes rankings of the "worst offenders": those airlines, flights and airports that had the most and longest delays last summer. Plan to fly as early in the morning as possible: think 6:30 a.m. instead of 9. If you're lucky, you'll be in and out before troubles start.

Book a good ticket. Online travel agents and consolidators may offer low prices, but the airlines may bump their clients first and work harder to find new flights for their own frequent fliers, says Hanni, who suggests travelers research online but buy their tickets directly from the airline. An old-fashioned paper ticket will help you jump to a different carrier more quickly if you do end up stranded at the airport, and in this environment a direct, nonstop flight may be worth some extra money. When you're making your reservation, allow at least two hours between connecting flights. And give yourself a buffer day. Don't expect to swoop in hours before a meeting or even the day before a big event, like a wedding.

Use your airport time. Check in at curbside if it's available, and make sure your cosmetics and other carry-on items conform to what the Transportation Security Administration is looking for now, as listed at tsa.gov. Some airlines take the cell-phone numbers or BlackBerry addresses of their passengers so they can text-message information about changes.

Bring a sandwich and an extension cord. You still may not be able to avoid delays, so carry the items that will help you through. Make sure your phone is fully charged and bring the phone numbers of all the major air carriers that fly out of your airport, suggests David Castelveter of the Air Transport Association: "If you do run into a disruption, you're not at the mercy of the airport staff trying to process hundreds of people at once." Bring a good snack with you on the plane; if you're on a flight like McKee's that isn't scheduled to get food, you're unlikely to get fed if the plane is held. Frequent travelers will carry an extension cord so that if they are stuck in the airport for many hours, they can use their computers or charge their phones without having to crowd around the one outlet that's near the gate.

Be nice, but be tough. If you do get bumped or stuck, don't take it out on the hapless employee who has to deliver the bad news. It's rarely his fault. But if you don't get satisfaction, do follow up later with a written complaint to the airline. They don't always give their best consolation prizes on the spot. Confronted with your disgruntlement a week or two later, they might follow up with a nice, fat travel voucher. So you can go back and visit your favorite tarmac.