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5 Ways To Beat Peak Summer Airfares

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Summer travelers flying during peak season don't have to pay peak prices for the privilege if they're willing to do some creative cost cutting.

If you're flying Delta (DAL), United (UAL), Continental, American (AMR), U.S. Airways (LCC) or even AirTran (AAI) from now until Aug. 22, congratulations: You're in peak holiday season. It doesn't matter that the Fourth of July is the one actual holiday falling between those dates. For the second year in a row, airlines have decided that since there are 80,000 more flights per month in July and August than during the December holidays, according to the Department of Transportation, they should be treated as such and have surcharges of $20 to $30 imposed on Mondays, Fridays and Sundays and $10 to $20 on lightly traveled Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The premium for the remaining days on the calendar falls somewhere in between.

"Peak season means peak prices," says Genevieve Shaw Brown, senior editor at Travelocity. "The key to saving is flexibility -- whether that be dates of travel, destination or even booking strategy."

Of the 86% of survey respondents who told Expedia's (EXPE) TripAdvisor that they planned to travel this summer, 62% say they plan on flying. The American Express (AXP) Spending and Saving Tracker, meanwhile, found that 60% of the general population are willing to make tradeoffs to cut their summer travel costs.

They're going to have to. Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com, notes that major airlines have tried a dozen fare hikes during the first four months of the year, which United credited for a 15% passenger revenue hike in May. Meanwhile, the number of airline flights have fallen from more than 10 million in 2005 to just 8.7 million last year -- the lowest since 2002 in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- and capacity has dwindled as airlines merge and cut routes.

This comes as airlines need to pack planes tighter than ever, since the percentage of a plane that needs to be full for a carrier to break even on a flight has soared from 69% in 2001 to 82% last year. Rising fuel and security costs only increase the pressure during the summer, as airlines had to reach 85% to 86% capacity all last summer just to prevent a loss.

The confused consumer is stuck in the middle of all of this, as tactics that helped reduce the cost of travel two to three years ago are rendered moot today by decreasing traffic and an expanding fee structure.

"The No. 1 thing that consumers do that hurts them is procrastinate," Seaney says. "Procrastination actually helped during the recession because airlines were willing to dump seats at the last minute, but in theory what happens is that when you have a perfect storm of reduced capacity, heavy demand and seats selling out, prices tend to jump dramatically."

So what can a thrifty summer traveler do to shave peak airline prices down to something less painful? Travelocity's Brown says shifting destinations is a start, with literal hot spots from Phoenix to the Caribbean costing as much as 50% less in the summer months and hotel prices shrinking by as much as 70% compared with high-season rates. There are several ways to save before you arrive, however, and TheStreet has picked out five of the best:

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