Much ink (actual and digital) has been spilled on the subject of holiday fares—are they going up? Down? Should people book now? Should people wait? But I dare say that most of what's been written is speculative at best. No one could really know what this season would be like until it was underway. And now it is.
"Last year," writes the New York Times' Michelle Higgins, "procrastinators were rewarded when they finally got around to booking flights for holiday travel.… This year? Dilly-dallying, even waiting just a few days, could carry a steep price. Fares, though still lower now than at this time last year, are rising each day, a trajectory that began more than a month ago."
Our advice for anxious holiday travelers has been simple: Benchmark fares for your route, and track them for a few days or even a week. If they go down, hang in there and see how low they go. If they go up, you should probably book before they get higher. If Higgins is right, then clearly travelers should be researching fares now with the intent to book, though a day or two of comparing (or more, depending on your comfort level) is still something I suggest. Don't let panic push you to book before you're ready.
But Higgins does have the data to back up her assertion. According to Bing Travel, overall Thanksgiving fares rose 6 percent in the last week, with prices for the most popular itinerary (depart Wednesday, November 25, return Sunday November 29) spiking by 10 percent.
Our own data paints a similar though slightly more mixed picture. We've been tracking roughly 50 popular routes for several weeks, and this week it appears a slight majority of Thanksgiving fares are, indeed, up. For example, Chicago/Orlando fares leaving November 23 (+/- one day) and returning November 29 (+/- one day) are up $28. Flights between Tampa and Los Angeles are up $20. But several routes have gone down since last week, including San Francisco/Los Angeles (down $12), Boston/Los Angeles (down $91), and San Jose/Orlando (down $11). Christmas fares this week are largely holding steady or dropping, including big price cuts on flights to and from the Northeast.
Over at our sister site, Airfarewatchdog.com, George Hobica also notes that while fares are fluctuating, they're not necessarily all going up. He price-checked three fares mentioned in the article and found that all three fares have gone down since the Times article was published. "This is not to refute that the Times and its sources got the fares wrong when they searched," Hobica writes, "but it is to say that fares go up and they go down, and seat availability at the lowest fares decreases and increases throughout the day and over several days. We're just afraid that someone reading the Times today might conclude that the game is up if they haven't booked holiday travel yet and they should stop looking for (relative) deals."
We've been saying all along that this year is not last year, where prices dipped when cash-strapped travelers opted to stay home. Instead, Bing suggests this year is more like 2007, when fares waffled for several weeks before spiking about a month before Thanksgiving. So far, 2009 is following a nearly identical path.
SmarterTravel readers, too, have begun writing in with their own tales of skyrocketing holiday fares. One reader said, "I respectfully submit that this year's Thanksgiving fares are considerably higher than last year's. I followed a website's advice to wait 7 days and ended up paying $100 more for my ticket and almost $200 more for my husband's."
So with six weeks to go before Thanksgiving, it's definitely time to start thinking about booking that flight, if only because everyone else will soon be doing the same. Farecompare's Rick Seaney told the Times "practical travelers should be shopping now and buying before the end of October," and that seems like increasingly reasonable advice.
What about you? How goes your holiday fare shopping? Share your experiences and year-over-year comparisons below. Thanks!
Update, October 19: Our friends at Airfarewatchdog spent the weekend tracking holiday fares, and are happy to report that fares on some popular routes continue to trend downward (for now).