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Seven Things to Know About Booking Holiday Travel

The holidays can be a stressful time, especially if you're traveling. But booking fares for that trip home doesn't have to induce stomach-churning anxiety. Here are a few tips for finding a good deal this holiday season.

Start Looking Early—as in, Now: If you know you'll be traveling for the holidays this year, and know which days you'd like to fly, start looking now. Fares will fluctuate considerably between now and November or December, so it's good to know where they start out.

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Decide What You're Comfortable Paying: Based on what's available today, decide what you'd tolerate as your final fare. Say a fare today is $300, and you're hoping it'll come down a little. How long are you willing to wait and, if it goes up instead of down, what is your ceiling? $330? $350? If you have a maximum price in mind, you'll know when it's time to cut your losses and book.

Expect Lower Prices Earlier Rather than Later: Our own Sarah Pascarella writes, "If last year is any indication, airlines will start pitching holiday sales right after Labor Day, and holiday flights will be at their cheapest the first two weeks of October." In most respects, this is a simple case of supply and demand. Airlines have sold only a few seats earlier in the season, so pricing is likely to be more attractive as carriers try to jumpstart bookings. Once planes begin filling up, however, expect fares to rise.

Don't Bank on Grabbing a Last-Minute Deal: The flip side to the previous point, of course, is that unsold seats are often sold at a discount at the last minute. We saw this in 2008, when travelers who waited until the midnight hour snagged some pretty good deals. This year, things figure to be different. Travel is on the rebound and capacity has been cut, both of which suggest fewer last-minute deals will be available. If travel is a must this year, don't assume you can procrastinate and snag a killer bargain on December 23.

Avoid Peak Travel Days: Over the past 18 months, airlines have introduced peak travel day surcharges, effectively a $15-to-$20 (or more) tax on people flying on the most convenient holiday travel days. These days are exactly what you'd expect: The weeks preceding and following Thanksgiving and Christmas. The fees are a pain to avoid, and the easiest way to do so is to fly an airline that doesn't charge the fee, such as Southwest, JetBlue, or Virgin America. But don't write off traveling on these days, either. Compare fares to see which days have the lowest prices, even if you have to pay the surcharge.

Consider Alternate Airports: Once again, our own Sarah Pascarella has the insight: "If you're flying into an area that's serviced by multiple airports, you may find better deals, flight availability, and schedules at secondary airports over the holidays. When conducting your price comparisons, make sure to include all area airports in your search results." Flying into Boston? Consider Manchester, NH. San Francisco? Try Oakland or even San Jose. It's worth a shot, and hey, you can cash in some of that holiday goodwill by convincing a family member to haul out and pick you up.

Know Your Fees: Lost amid the flurry of fares and deals and all the pressure to book before it's too late, it's easy to forget that the fare you see may not be your total final cost. Factor in fees to your final price and make sure that good fare isn't just a bunch of smoke and mirrors. You can use our Ultimate Guide to Airline Fees for an up-to-date list of which airlines charge what.

Sign Up for Fare Alerts: Rather than go through the manual process of searching multiple sites every day, sign up for alerts that let you know when prices are changing. Our sister site, Airfarewatchdog.com, lets you sign up for city-to-city alerts, meaning you'll get price updates for your specific route.

Readers, what tried-and-true tips do you have for navigating the holiday booking morass? Share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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