NEWTON, Mass. (TheStreet) -- A week before Thanksgiving Day and just weeks away from the December holidays, travel deals aren't plentiful, but there are still a few out there worth being thankful for.
, roughly 36% of Americans plan on traveling this Thanksgiving, up from 33% last year. Of those, 72% will be traveling out of state and 41% will be traveling 500 miles or more. If dawdling Thanksgiving travelers hope the economy will reduce demand, they may want to check in with the 68% of the country who say the economy had no impact on its holiday travel plans. With 15% of those folks planning to spend more on Thanksgiving travel this year than a year ago, a last-minute ticket won't come cheap. Genevieve Shaw Brown, senior editor at
, says the average round-trip ticket price of $378 this Thanksgiving weekend is what late bargain hunters should try to beat, but some of her colleagues say even that's a bargain for travelers stuck at this stage.
Holiday travel booked now is likely to be expensive. One last-minute secret to keep in mind: Flying in on the actual day of a holiday can avoid high fees and large crowds.
"I wouldn't say the word 'screwed' unless I was with my poker buddies, but this is not the year to procrastinate," says Rick Seaney, co-founder and chief executive of travel site
. "Typically what would happen historically is that airlines, inside of 14 days before Thanksgiving, will throw in what they call 'turkey fares' where they'll treat everyone like a business traveler when the flights get full and bump ticket prices up to $600 to $800 round-trip."
There are still ways to aim for the low end, including flying during the off-peak days Seaney says airlines are all too willing to point out through their holiday surcharges' degrees of severity. Leaving this Friday, for example, will result in only a $20 holiday fee from
. Meanwhile, leaving anywhere from Saturday to the ill-advised Wednesday before Thanksgiving costs only $10 extra, while flying in on Thanksgiving morning is fee-free (and usually a lot less crowded).
Discount airlines such as
don't have those fees and don't charge for the first checked bag, but those carriers still provide the absolute mayhem and added ticket cost of return flights Sunday, Nov. 28, and Monday, Nov. 29, even without the $30 their competitors charge for the privilege. Returning on Tuesday may burn an extra vacation or (cough) sick day, but Travelocity's Brown says it can help save an average $185 per ticket. Tardy travel planners may want to consider altering their accommodation plans as well, with hotel availability scarce and even vacation rentals coming at a premium. Last-minute vacation site
, for example, may not have a place near grandma's house in Milwaukee, but there's 50% availability at all their
if you'd rather ditch her for Lindsey Vonn and the Aspen Winternational Audi FIS Alpine World Cup on Thanksgiving weekend.
"It's never 'too late' to book holiday travel, but you may have to reset your expectations," Brown says. "With Thanksgiving just one week away, it's really go-time at this point."
As for the December holidays, there's still plenty of time to buy tickets that Brown says are averaging $420 round-trip. If travelers are holding out for airfare sales, however, they should stop procrastinating and realize that most of the holiday sales are blacked out. Regular prices will only take off while they're waiting.
"Most people book tickets inside of 30 days at this time of year," Seaney says. "This year, if you're getting a quote that's $350 to $500 now, that quote's more likely to be $550 to $600 if you wait two weeks than it is to be $275."
There are ways to cut costs, however. FareCompare's Seaney advises fliers to "beg, borrow and steal" frequent flier miles from friends and family if a round-trip ticket price rises above $450. If seeking fares for a family of four, check single-seat availability first, as Seaney says groups will always get bumped to a higher fare while individuals can pick off lower prices. While late-season sales are unlikely, Seaney also advises fliers to check airline Facebook and Twitter pages as the holidays approach, as they'll try to offload "distressed inventory" there.
Flying out before Dec. 15 will help travelers avoid the highest fees, while flying in Christmas morning or returning home after Jan. 3 will help elude fees altogether. Choosing fee-free discount airlines helps too, but Seaney says applying for Delta and Continental's cards before the holidays will also eliminate baggage fees for those who prefer or are stuck with a larger carrier. Meanwhile, SmarterTravel editor Anne Banas recommends browsing airports a little farther from your destination, as there's hundreds of dollar to be saved by flying into Philadelphia instead of Newark or LaGuardia to see relatives in New Jersey.
If holiday travelers are still looking for a deal and a home for the holidays, Seaney says travel sites that offer low-cost flight and hotel package deals are worth visiting if only to drop the hotel reservation once you have the cheap airfare in hand. Travelocity's Brown, however, recommends hanging onto that room if you're not bunking with family, as room rates rose just 2% this year from their already depressed 2009 levels. Vacation rentals are also an option, as PackLate spokesman Stephen Daimler says destinations like Destin, Fla., Mammoth Mountain ski resort in California and even Costa Rica have more than
50% property availability
Lastly, if fliers want to save money and their sanity, SmarterTravel's Banas advises against bringing presents with you or even bringing them back. Citing tightened security and most retailers' holiday shipping offers, Banas says sending gifts ahead or having relatives ship them in advance helps avoid added aggravation at the airport.
"It's really not a good idea to bring packages, because the fees will make it more expensive if you check that stuff and jewelry and high-end electronics and appliances aren't covered by insurance if your bag gets lost or stolen," Banas says, citing "dead weeks" in the first two weeks of December and a very slow month in January. "If you decided to wrap them, it's a horrible hassle because TSA agents will just have to unwrap them anyway to see what's inside."
Jami Counter, senior director of TripAdvisor Flights, offers the following advice for holiday slackers still looking for last-minute Thanksgiving and winter holiday fares and accommodations:
- To find the best last-minute airfares, be as flexible as you can with your travel dates. Prices will be significantly cheaper if you can avoid peak travel dates such as the Wednesday before and Sunday after Thanksgiving. In December, the Friday before and the Sunday after Christmas will be busy travel dates as well.
- Cast as wide a net as possible when searching for potential flights. Use flight search engines and airline websites all at once.
- Keep an eye on airfare deal sites that scrounge up the best fares from different cities across the country.
- Follow airlines and travel brands on social networking sites such as Twitter in case they announce last-minute fare sales. You'll likely have to act fast in the case of flash sales, so be prepared to book once you find a price that fits your travel budget.
- Don't forget about airline fees when booking. A great last-minute fare can quickly turn into a dud when you add in charges for checked baggage and other services.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.