NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Holiday travel isn't as far away as consumers think, which makes right now a good time to buy during a bad season.
If travelers are considering flying somewhere for Thanksgiving dinner, they are just about out of options. According to Rick Seaney, analyst and CEO for travel website FareCompare, roughly two months out is the best time to shop for holiday airfares and desired flight times. During the next few weeks, it's going to get a lot tougher to find a low-cost fare or a non-redeye flight without arriving or departing on Thanksgiving Day itself.
Summer vacation was only a few weeks ago for some travelers, but airlines including Delta, United, US Airways and American are already preparing their holiday travel surcharges and shrinking capacity. Those surcharges stretch from November through January and can't be avoided no matter how far in advance you book your tickets.
That doesn't mean fares won't get a whole lot worse. Beginning in the last week of October, airfare shoppers start paying an extra five dollars a day for their airfare for every day they waited. Overall, airfares jump by $100 between early October and mid-November. FareCompare editor Rick Seaney says the best holiday travelers can hope for is a “better bad deal.” The best chance for that great lousy fare comes in September, when airlines first start discounting fall and winter prices.
Seaney notes that if you're planning on flying the Wednesday before Thanksgiving or the Sunday after it, you'd have to book now just to ensure a seat. If you want to save, flying in on the Monday before Thanksgiving and leaving either the Saturday or Monday afterward is your best bet. As for Christmas, it's once again a matter of booking to ensure a seat rather than to secure a good price. Unless you feel like flying out Dec. 16 and leaving Christmas Day, there are no “deals” – only reduced demand.
There are some ways to chip away at the worst prices, however. Seaney notes that, typically, the best days to fly during the week are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, mainly because nobody wants to fly on those days. Wednesday, however, gets more popular during the holiday season as Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday and, this year, Christmas falls on a Thursday as well. If you're willing to fly out on a Tuesday and get back early Friday or Saturday, it should knock at least a small portion off of your airfare.
As for when to book that flight — besides ASAP — try booking on a Tuesday just before 3 p.m. Eastern or noon Pacific time. Airlines typically launch sales late Monday or very early the next day before competitors along those same routes start matching that lower fare to grab attention. That matching usually stops around 3 p.m. Eastern, so jump in just before then for the best deals.
Passengers should be similarly flexible with their arrival and departure airports. If travelers are willing to go to Washington, D.C., without flying into Reagan International, Dulles or even Baltimore or escape New York without joining the rest of the city in LaGuardia, JFK or Newark, Seaney says they could save as much as $100 by hitting a less popular airport a few hours away. New Yorkers may want to consider flights from Newburgh, N.Y., Philadelphia or Hartford. Philadelphia is also a decent option for getting to D.C., but Roanoke might be a better bargain for those who can deal with the drive. Seattle passengers can save with a flight to or from Portland just three hours away, while Chicago travelers fed up with Midway or O'Hare can get better deals in South Bend or Milwaukee.
Even tinkering with the itinerary can minimize costs, but not always. Sacrificing a nonstop flight for a 30-minute layover can shear $100 or more off the price of air travel, but that rule doesn't apply during Thanksgiving. Seaney says a layover may help lower a fare, but it just as easily may not. It's often not a bad deal for single passengers, who may not have an issue with a $10 to $20 disparity between a connecting flight and a direct route. A family of four paying $25 more per ticket apiece, however, may want to consider a layover. Just beware cold-weather cities, where freak storms can result in nightmarish delays.
Airlines such as JetBlue and Southwest, which mercifully avoid fees for the first checked bag, can also trim away a bit of the ticket price. For those who have to stay in hotels around the holidays, Seaney and editor Ed Perkins at TripAdvisor site SmarterTravel have recommended air-and-hotel travel packages as a way around winter holiday pricing. Perkins notes that most big airlines and big online travel agencies bundle packages that often cost less than arranging the individual parts on your own. Those deals are at their peak when passengers book them in September or even early October. They may not save much on airfare specifically, but room and rental car discounts will make it a better overall deal.
As a last resort, Seaney suggests flying on the holiday itself. Flights are empty, prices are low and there's still a chance you'll make it home in time for holiday dinner. It's not ideal, but it's as close to a deal as holiday travelers will get.
— Written by Jason Notte for MainStreet
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