Thursday, September 22, 2011

Holiday Airfares? Its NOT Too Early To Buy

Photo by Philms
Don't assume you'll be able to snag last-minute bargains this year, for flights home at Thanksgiving and Christmas. As article after article has pointed out, empty middle seats are scarcer these days than ever before, what with airlines trimming capacity in attempt to send out every plane full. That will be especially true at the holidays, always the most popular times of the year to fly.

There has been some good news on the airline front however: recently, the Associated Press reported that the four major carriers (Delta, United, Continental and American) have sliced in half the number of days they'll be charging holiday surcharges. These sneaky add-ons, which come to between $20 and $40 each way, will be in effect on Nov. 27 and 28, Dec 22, 23 and 26, and Jan 2. But that's better than the 12 days last year that carried surcharges.

As well, the number-crunching gurus at BingTravel have looked at prices so far and have concluded that, on average, fares will be slightly over 1% cheaper than last year. Not a big savings, but heck, we'll take what we can get!

That being said, holiday airfares are always the highest of the year, so as a public service, I thought I'd reiterate some tips for making the trip home as inexpensive and painless as possible:
  • Fly when no one else is: Which means avoiding the surcharged days listed above. Generally, you can save by flying previous to the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and after the Tuesday after the holiday. For Christmas/New Years travel, you'll want to head out before the 15th of December and back after January 2. Yes, that's a LOT of time to spend with the family, so if you're a misanthrope, you could choose flights on the holidays themselves. These are usually much cheaper, and you'll be able to grab a slice of turkey and pie, without having to spend too much time in dysfunction-land.
  • Search for airfares and book on Tuesdays and Wednesdays: That's when the sales tend to pop for domestic fares. (Not so much for international flights)
  • Fly early in the day: The holidays fall squarely in the heart of winter storm season. Since weather delays tend to ripple through the system, getting worse as the day progresses and more planes get stuck, flying first thing in the morning may get you where you're going without a hassle (if sleep-deprived).
  • Book a non-stop or go for a flight with a connection? That's an open question, friends, and it depends on your goals. If you just want to save cash, flights with connections may be the cheapest options. However, the more times you take off and land, the more likely you are to get delayed over the holidays, thanks to an ugly confluence of bad weather and crowds. Sunnier airports (say Phoenix vs. Denver) are smarter at this time of the year for connections, as they see many fewer delayed and cancelled flights due to weather issues. The new GoogleFlights allows users to filter by airport they'll be transferring through.
In the two years following 9/11, a period when the airlines were all flying more planes but there were fewer would-be passengers eager to fly, the public got used to seeing reams of last-minute discounts on airfares.

Those days are over.

Unless something really horrific happens in the next few months (a crash or an act of terrorism), flights will be pricey this holiday season and some folks won't get where they want to go because of the reduced airline capacity. So don't be a cockeyed optimist: if you want to travel during these difficult periods, don't delay. Make your bookings soon.

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