There may be about 75 days until Christmas, but people planning to fly home for the holidays need to act fast or they'll end up with coal.
As the airline industry recovers, carriers have been extremely stingy when it comes to cutting fares and adding capacity. Instead, airlines have been parking planes and limiting schedules until the profits start to roll in. And with demand higher during the holidays, finding a cheap fare or the right flight will be harder than last year.
"It's time to rethink your holiday strategy. People have been trained over the years to get really low bargain fares by waiting until the last minute to get them. Procrastinators have delighted in this," said Amy Ziff, author of a travel tips column for Travelocity.com. "But Christmas is a different story. It's in your best interest to look now and book early." Until recently, airlines would take seats they couldn't sell and dump them on online travel sites for cheap fares -- but those days are over.
Indeed, the situation travelers face is much different from what it was three years ago, when airlines were only beginning to feel the effect of the recession and weren't as disciplined in controlling capacity. According to the Air Transport Association, carriers flew 892.7 million seat miles last year, down nearly 7% from 2000. And through August of this year, the trend has continued, with capacity off 3.9% from 2002 levels.
With roughly 10% fewer flights to choose from, finding a flight that meets your scheduling needs could be harder, especially if you're looking at Florida. Because the children of retirees traditionally head to warm places to spend the holidays together, markets such as Fort Myers, Phoenix and Tampa can be extremely tight.
"One of the airports suffering from this is Las Vegas, where there is a lot less capacity now, and you need to book in advance to get seats on the choice days," said Geoff Silvers, director of e-marketing at Orbitz. "When going over the weekend, you need to plan a month in advance."
Not only will travelers have fewer options, they'll fly on planes that are far more crowded than usual. With stronger-than-expected demand and tight supplies, load factors, or the percentage of seats filled on every plane, have been soaring to record levels. Over the summer, big carriers such as
unit American were close to 80% full, while planes at
were more than 90% full.
"Over the summer, airlines parked more planes in the desert. With fewer planes flying, that plane feels pretty full. You'll notice those middle seats are all taken up," said Ziff, noting that fall fares were up 5% to 8% over last year's levels.
Middle seats aren't the only things that are going fast -- so are those rock-bottom Web fares. Carriers haven't only limited the number of flights, they've also limited the number of sale fares that can only be found online. With demand slowly coming back, airlines have been holding the line on prices.
"They may add a flight or two, but I don't see them running any crazy specials. I haven't seen as many ads and specials as in the past," said Paul Everson, vice president of Whitcomb Travel Services, a travel agency. "I just think we're slowly seeing a trend where prices are stabilizing and airlines have quit beating each other up to get market share, even if it means losses."
Be Flexible and Savvy
While the recovering industry fundamentals make it harder for travelers to find deals, a combination of common sense and technology can make this process easier.
The easiest way to get the best deals is by being aware of the biggest travel days -- such as the day before Christmas -- and being flexible enough to avoid them. This year, Christmas and New Year's Day are on Thursday, which encourages many to take Friday off and fly back later. As a result, Everson says, flight availability will be tight on Dec. 28 and Jan. 4, the Sundays following both holidays.
"With Christmas, it's tricky. It can depend on what day of the week it falls. You'll find that prices will show you when you should be flying. Where you find a fabulous deal, you're hitting the dates that are outside peak times," said Ziff.
Not being able to take off work might limit your chances to take advantage of the better deals offered during off-peak times, which is why it's so important to book early. People with extremely tight schedules might want to consider flying out on Christmas Day and New Year's Day, when prices can be lower and airports less crowded.
Online search engines will be invaluable resources this holiday season, giving travelers an edge in finding the best deals. Got a flexible schedule? Orbitz enables you to see how departing and arriving on different days changes prices, with the Flex Search feature on its search engine. Looking to head to Boston? Travelocity's Farewatcher feature alerts you whenever there's a fare sale over the route you plan to travel this holiday season.
Another good tactic, especially for people who vacation over the holidays, is to avoid warm-weather destinations. In the winter, many airlines offer great deals to Europe, making it possible to tour London for the same price it would cost to fly elsewhere. "They're not all good, but there are exceptional bargains because it's off-peak and there's good capacity there," said Silvers, noting that fares can be as low as $200 round-trip from New York, not including taxes.
In the spring and fall, low demand makes it possible to find some last-minute deals at the most popular destinations, but the experts say that waiting until the last minute to buy holiday tickets is a bad idea. While it may be possible to get lucky and find a discount flight, as David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, points out, "The one thing worse than a high fare is no fare."