Planes are more crowded and fees seem to keep rising, but travel experts say ticket prices aren’t shooting up this year, and with a little planning, you can fly affordably this holiday season at Thanksgiving or Christmas.
“Our data shows ticket prices for Thanksgiving up about 1 percent compared to last year, which is less than inflation,” said Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com.
But cheaper air travel at Thanksgiving or Christmas might mean taking flights at odd times or off-peak days, and even choosing flights to and from outlying cities instead of your final destination.
Here’s advice on how to fly affordably:
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Pick unpopular days, times
: Airlines price every seat as a function of supply and demand, and there’s a lot less demand on some days than others. For example, most people want to leave Wednesday night before Thanksgiving and fly home the Sunday after, making these the most expensive days to fly.
If you’re willing to give up some family time, flying on Thanksgiving Day and returning Saturday, you can possibly save hundreds of dollars. Flying on Christmas Day or early on New Year’s Day also can help you save.
Outside holiday periods, “Usually Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday are the cheapest days to travel,” said George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com.
Look at nearby airports: “Everybody suggests that, but people forget,” Hobica said of the old trick of flying to or from a nearby, smaller airport.
If you’re going to Los Angeles, comparison-shop for flights to Long Beach or Orange County’s John Wayne Airport. For San Francisco, check fares to Oakland.
If you’re going to New York City, check Newark flights. For Washington, D.C., a flight to Baltimore-Washington International can be much cheaper than to Washington Reagan National.
For flights from the Northwest, check flights from Bellingham (Alaska Airlines offers flights to Hawaii) Check Vancouver, B.C., for flights to Asia.
Keep checking online: Check airline websites often. Hobica advises
people to keep windows open on their browser, and hit “refresh” often throughout the day to see whether the price of a flight changes.
Undeclared sales can last for only a few hours on each route. One seat at a lower fare class could open up due to a canceled reservation.
Also check aggregators such as Kayak and Orbitz. But be aware that some airlines, such as Southwest, offer bookings only on their own websites.
There’s no perfect time to book before a flight, Hobica said. “To presume there’s a magic time, like 60 days ahead, that’s ridiculous,” he said.
Grab a deal: If you see a deal — or even what you think is a reasonable fare — book it fast, Hobica said. You’re not likely to get anything better by holding out, and you could lose your seat.
“If you look on Kayak and you see United is charging $300 and everyone else is charging $500, I’d definitely book,” Hobica said.
Wait, if you must: On the other hand, if every flight you can find is too expensive for you to afford — or if the prices are so high you’re considering driving instead — don’t give up. Instead, consider waiting a bit, Hobica said.
“Sometimes, two weeks before the holidays the airlines relent and lower fares,” he said. “If you simply couldn’t afford an $800 fare, you have nothing to lose if you wait and look a couple weeks before. “That said, you’ll be leaving on the 6 a.m. flight.”
Don’t go crazy: Airline pricing is a phenomenally complicated business, with millions of seats priced and re-priced constantly based on availability, demand and competition.
“They’re changing constantly,” Hobica said of airfares, which might be parceled out in 20 price classes for different blocks of seats on every plane. “They adjust the number of seats available in all fare classes throughout the day.”
In the end, Hobica said, there’s no way to game the system. The best advice he has is dogged persistence. “You can’t second-guess these people,” Hobica said.