Early October may seem like an odd time to be contemplating winter wonderlands, but now is the time to book holiday flights. This year, it won’t pay to wait.
For the critical travel period that encompasses Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s, all indicators are that flights will be fuller and fares will be higher in 2010. Consider the following:
• There’s a lag in official data, but the most recent airfare report from the U.S. Department of Transportation—which reflects the first quarter of this year—indicates ticket prices had risen 4.7 percent compared to last year, reaching levels not seen in almost a decade. Simply put, fares are rising.
• The “fareologists” at Bing Travel estimate prices for Thanksgiving flights will dip this year, but fares for Christmas and New Year’s will rise 2 percent compared to last year.
• The FareCompare Christmas Travel Guide sums it up: “Don’t panic, but it’s time to shop for your Christmas plane tickets. And this year, you procrastinate at your peril.”
Experts note that rock-bottom discounts are nearly impossible to secure during the holidays. However, that doesn’t mean you need to be gouged. We’ve compiled some advice to help you secure the best possible fare for your holiday travels. But don’t wait much longer.
One other point: Even in the lightest of travel seasons, airline load factors have reached record highs in recent years. So planning your holiday around space-available travel can be quite risky in November and December. This applies to frequent flyer redemption that is capacity controlled (that is, subject to availability). And it also applies to student travel programs that are dependent on empty seats. Getting bumped on Thanksgiving Eve is no way to save a dollar.
Here are some other suggestions to keep in mind as you shop for holiday flights:
• It may seem obvious, but it’s critical to remain flexible and compare itineraries across several days. Moving your trip by even 24 hours can have a huge effect on the price—and never more so than during the holidays. So consider all the options, which can mean alternate dates, alternate times, and alternate airports.
• Avoid peak travel days. To go along with all those other annoying fees, several airlines now impose “peak travel surcharges” for those flying on the most popular days. The good news is that reviewing these embargoes can tell you which dates to avoid. And the even better news is FareCompare has compiled all these peak days into a single chart encompassing AirTran, American, Continental, Delta, United, and US Airways.
• Remember that you can often find the lowest fares (and most seats) if you fly on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day.
• They’re marketed under different names, but several travel sites offer fare alert tools to notify you when prices drop for a given itinerary. If your online shopping efforts are giving you sticker shock, consider signing up:
• The holiday season is prime time for your ticket price to be jacked up by baggage fees as you tote presents to Grandma’s house. What’s more, the Transportation Security Administration may decide to unwrap any gifts you’ve wrapped. That’s why it makes more sense than ever to consider shipping packages in advance and traveling lighter.
• Speaking of the TSA, you should check out its site for some airline packing tips.—William J. McGee