Everything you need to know about travel to California amid the Getty and Kincade wildfires

Travel to parts of California is returning to normal schedules as firefighters have been able to better contain wildfires in the northern and southern parts of the state.

Last weekend, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency as high winds fueled wildfires across parts of California.

Now, both the Kincade wildfire in the North and the Getty wildfire in the South are more than 60 percent contained. Evacuees are returning home in some areas and power is being restored in many neighborhoods in both areas.

Northern California

The Charles M. Schultz-Sonoma County Airport (STS) in Santa Rosa said it’s restoring full commercial air service, but it will take a few days to return to normal schedules. The airport had shut down all commercial air services due to the Kincade Fire, which started on Oct. 23 near Geyserville in Sonoma County.

Map of Kincade Fire 2019
This is a map of the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County as of Oct. 28, 2019. (Courtesy of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection)

As of today, the Kincade Fire was 68 percent contained and is expected to be fully contained by Nov. 7, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The fire has burned more than 77,000 acres.

Today, the Santa Rosa airport said it’s restoring full commercial air service, but it will take a few days to return to normal schedules. American Airlines, Sun Country Airlines and United Airlines have resumed normal flight schedules to and from that airport, but Alaska Airlines said on its blog that it has suspended all its 18 daily flights in and out of Santa Rosa through Saturday, Nov. 2, because the situation in Sonoma County remains “dangerous and unpredictable.”

“Everyone’s safety remains the top concern,” Alaska said on its blog. The airline is letting customers change or cancel their flights without fees.

For the Santa Rosa airport, American Airlines is letting customers reschedule flights without fees; Alaska Airlines, Sun Country Airlines and United Airlines are letting passengers change or cancel flights without fees. Certain dates apply for each airline.

Flights in and out of other Northern California airports in Oakland, Sacramento and San Francisco were not directly affected.

Southern California

The Getty Fire in Los Angeles, which was reported on Oct. 28, is 66 percent contained, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department. It has burned about 745 acres.

American Airlines is letting travelers rebook flights without fees for five Southern California airports in Burbank (BUR), Long Beach (LGB), Los Angeles (LAX), Ontario (ONT) and Santa Ana/Orange County (SNA). Delta Air Lines is letting passengers change or cancel flights through the same five  airports without penalty and Sun Country Airlines is doing the same to/from the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Certain dates apply for each airline.

The Getty Fire or smoke from it has not affected other airline operations at Southern California airports.

Airline and traveler aid

Some airlines are directly helping California communities affected by the wildfires — and opening avenues for customers to do the same.

American has activated its Disaster Giving program through a partnership with the American Red Cross, which would supply shelter, food, supplies and health services as needed. American’s AAdvantage members wanting to help can give money, earning 10 miles for every dollar donated to the Red Cross with a minimum $25 donation through Nov. 16.

Alaska donated $10,000 to the California Fire Foundation’s SAVE (Supplying Aid to Victims of Emergency) and $5,000 to the Latino Community Foundation’s Wildfire Relief Fund. And the airline will match up to 1 million Mileage Plan miles donated by its customers to its Disaster Relief Pool.

Travelers can register with their airline for text or email notifications of flight delays or cancellations. They also should check with their airline for more details or information about service in California.

Wanna fly cheap? It’s not impossible

As the travel season prepares to heat up, people may wonder what kind of prices await them.

Don’t fret. The global airline market remains competitive, especially if you’re willing to book early, fly at off-peak times and try one of the many young low-cost carriers out there.

Europe always has much cheaper flights, and that’s still true despite the demise earlier this year of  Icelandic budget darling Wow Air. International carriers, including England’s EasyJet, Hungary’s Wizz Air and Ireland’s RyanAir offer cheap international flights, including from the United States.

Not all budget airlines are startups. Several large, international airlines also operate budget brands to compete with their low-cost peers. Australia’s JetStar is a subsidiary of Qantas Airways, Australia’s Tigerair is a unit of Virgin Australia, Spain’s Level Airline is part of Iberia Airway and Spain’s Vueling Airlines is a sister company to British Airways.

Level Airline
Some European low cost-carriers, such as Spain’s Level Airline, shuttle passengers to their plans on the tarmac. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

There are low-cost U.S. options, too. Condor Airlines, a German carrier, flies to 10 U.S. cities and many international destinations, Minnesota-based Sun Country Airlines started as a vacation charter, but now offers scheduled passenger service to over 50 destinations in the United States, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

Critics say budget carriers nickle and dime consumers, have poor on-time records and don’t offer the same service or quality. But there increasingly is little difference between the big and small airlines besides price — unless you’re flying business or first class.

It comes down to what what you are willing to pay vs. what you are willing to put up with within your schedule. Your destination also makes a difference.

I can’t complain about recent cheap, economy-class flights I took on Level, JetStar and TigerAir. One airline was delayed and one had narrow,, basic seats. On the other hand, I thought the food was rather good.

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Spanish low-cost carrier, Level Airline, provided seat-back entertainment systems and a USB charger on a transatlantic flight I flew nearly a year ago. Its movie selection impressed me. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Follow these tips to help find affordable airfare no matter what type of airline you fly:

  • Book your tickets on a Tuesday or Wednesday, the cheapest days of the week to fly. An average fare on a Tuesday will cost nearly $85 less than Sunday, which is the most expensive day to travel, according to the CheapAir.com 2019 Annual Airfare Study.
  • Last year, the “best day” to book a flight within the continental United States was 76 days — or 2.5 months — in advance, according to CheapAir, which analyzed 917 million airfares. That falls in the middle of what it calls the “prime booking window” — four months to three weeks before your departure date, when fares are at their lowest.
  • Don’t wait until 20 days or less before your target departure. That’s when your chances of getting a bargain or an aisle seat are the worst.
  • Typically, flights during the winter (excluding around the holidays) tend to be less expensive than in summer. It’s simple supply and demand.
  • Based on that premise, flying to Iceland or Germany in winter will probably cost less than going to a warmer climate.

Note: I took the featured photo of Tigerair at top.