PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Every year, I sit down with travel experts and listen to them advise my readers to take advantage of "dark" weeks on the holiday travel calendar and book trips when other travelers typically don't. Every year, I wave those same readers farewell while remaining shackled to my workstation, never taking those recommendations myself.
This year, that that unfortunate tradition comes to an end.
My wife was assigned to four days of training at the Centers For Disease Control in Atlanta by her lab in early November and didn't want to take the trip alone. After years of hearing my father's stories about his own trip to Atlanta during his days with AT&T (T), it seemed like a good place to keep myself busy during the day and meet up with my wife for dinner at night after she'd finished her day of training.
In early November, we booked tickets that took us out of Portland on Dec. 15 and brought us back on Dec. 19. Her lab got her a flight on Delta (DAL) while I found a direct flight on Alaska Airlines (ALK) that came in at $250 less than the Department of Transportation's average fare for the two destinations. When we arrived for our flights that were scheduled to leave at roughly 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday, we found Portland International Airport looking far emptier than when we'd taken flights to Philadelphia out of it at 6 a.m. on a Saturday just a month earlier.
It would be a stretch to call the airport dead, but it wasn't exactly bustling either. I made my way through security in less than 15 minutes, was able to get a cup of coffee without snaking through lines and found a seat with outlets for laptops and device chargers without having to squeeze in.
Despite this, my Alaska flight still had concerns about accommodating everyone's carry-on luggage. I'll never advise using a carry-on to avoid baggage fees again, because it's clear every traveler in the U.S. has received that message. What they may not realize, however, is that their glut of carry-ons has created an even better perk for the average U.S. flyer: Free checked luggage. Without fail, folks at the gate will point out that everyone is wheeling a larger carry-on onto the plane, stuffing all of the overhead compartments and making boarding an exiting a protracted nightmare.
Seriously, unless you're timing your trip to the minute and don't have time to spare when reaching your destination, take the freebie. Checking your bag means not having to fumble with it on the plane and not having to worry about some jerk smashing it with a super-rigid wrecking-ball carry-on to make room. Say what you will about airport baggage handlers, but they've at least done this a time or two.
I graciously accepted Alaska's offer to stow my bag below and, in doing so, had the Alaska rep at the counter notice that I was in a middle seat and offer to move me to a window or aisle seat. By taking that particular little perk, I somehow managed to put an empty seat between myself and the next passenger over -- a fellow from Salem, Ore., who was studying aquaculture farming and visiting his brother in Astoria, Queens. His brother is in culinary school and the two plan on one day opening a hatchery-to-table restaurant on the Oregon Coast -- a bit of knowledge he seemed far more eager to share with a seat's worth of real estate between us.
With at least a dozen other seats empty in our compartment and about five people upgraded to emergency row seats to allow a family of five to sit together, it did wonders for the general mood of the folks in coach. That combination of reduced numbers, pleasant passengers and checked bags also made for an unusually efficient exiting process, with first-class practically sprinting out of the plane and coach avoiding the rugby scrum of self-importance that usually bottlenecks the entire process for everyone.
This is where the feel-good part of this story should end. This is when I should enter the world's busiest airport, get steamrolled by a wall of passengers dashing toward a connecting flight to Chicago's O'Hare and vow never to return to the godforsaken hellscape again. Maybe it's those subterranean expectations that helped take the edge off, but the hike down to the train from my gate to baggage claim, the dearth of people on said train at 5:30 p.m. or so and the lack of obstructions between me and my wife when I met her at Delta and Alaska's cavern of baggage carousels indicated that we'd hit the place at just the right time.
Meanwhile, the lengthy route from the gate to the luggage drop gave my bag plenty of time to catch up and appear on the belt just as I arrived. Even when we made our way to the MARTA platform to catch our train to the hotel, we didn't get a whole lot of company for the ride and had our pick of seats.
I'll be the first to acknowledge that this is a mileage-may-vary tale and that my wife's Delta flight was a bit more full than mine. That said, the lack of pressure on both of us at each terminal and the ease with which we were able to complete our trips makes me a firm believer in this off-peak strategy.
This doesn't make a trip at this time of year any more ideal for folks who have to travel on Thanksgiving or Christmas and just want some time in between to gird themselves for the next holiday, but if you're a business traveler looking for a window for that promised trip back to HQ, a boss trying to plan a company holiday party for far-flung employees or a leisure traveler who'd sooner jam holly sprigs into his or her retinas than travel during the holidays, there's a nice, soft portion of the calendar from about the Tuesday after Thanksgiving through the Thursday before Christmas that's just waiting for you.
If you miss it, don't worry. Just about any week after New Year's through February that doesn't include Martin Luther King Day will give you the same room to roam. While it's just a reminder of how unnecessarily unpleasant airline travel has become just about any other day of the year, it's worth enjoying while you can.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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