For six years, Kate Stone has flown home to her parents place in Salt Lake City for the holidays. However, this year, the Boston resident thinks she may have to cancel the trip because of the high cost of airfare. "In the past I never paid more than $400 for a ticket, but after months of closely watching airfare prices this year, I haven't been able to find anything below $600," says Stone. "Once I factor in the time I have to miss from work and other holiday expenses, it doesn't leave me with a lot of wiggle room to spend on airfare. This is supposed to be the most joyful time of the year, but instead I'm stressed out about how I'm going to get to see my family."
This year, in addition to the usual holiday travel pressures including increased competition for seats and the potential for bad winter weather, two extra constraints—sharply higher prices and reduced capacity—are likely to create the perfect storm for holiday flyers. It will be both harder to find affordable airfares and avoid flying related hassles this Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"It's grim out there," says Mike Fridgen, director of product management at Live Search Farecast. "Compared to 2007, fares are up 31 percent for Thanksgiving, and up over 30 percent for Christmas and New Year's. We've seen year-over-year increases in the past but not by this much."
"There is no slack in the system right now," says Clem Bason, vice president of merchandising for Hotwire. "Domestic air capacity will be down by about 15 percent year over year in November and December. If weather causes delays or flight cancellations, travelers may well have to wait hours (or perhaps even over 24 hours) for another flight with empty seats to their destination."
While flying won't be cheap or easy this holiday season, travelers can take some measures to ensure they don't pay more than necessary and can even have an itinerary that minimizes the potential for trouble at the airport. Here are some key tips from the experts.
1. Book as Soon as Possible
Overwhelmingly, air travel experts say you should book your holiday tickets now if you haven't already. "The most important factor in getting the best price is always to book early," says Amanda Hoffman, spokeswoman for Expedia.com. "Also, the further ahead you book, the better your chances of finding nonstop flights and flights with fewer layovers."
"There is little hope for holiday sales [this year]," says Bason. "I advise consumers to book as soon as possible."
Despite these warnings, Fridgen of Farecast thinks there might be a chance for travelers who are flexible to save if they wait until early October to book. "Last year the first two weeks of October were the best time to buy holiday airfare. Many routes saw price drops." On Farecast you can set up "fare alerts" on specific routes which will alert you to any major price drops or increases. Fridgen cautions that this year such drops will likely only occur for less popular routes and travel times. "If you know you're going to be traveling on a popular route on peak travel dates, book now."
2. Avoid the Most Expensive Travel Days
Being flexible about when you fly can help you save a bundle. The first step is to avoid the busiest travel days. "Generally the most expensive days to fly over Thanksgiving are Wednesday before and Sunday after," says Genevieve Brown, senior editor at Travelocity. "By flying on the Monday or Tuesday after Thanksgiving you can save around $90 per ticket," says Fridgen. Both experts see similar trends for New Year's, which falls on a Thursday in 2009.
For Christmas, December 23 and the Sunday after Christmas Day are traditionally the priciest dates, with the days in between offering some relief. But this year, with the exception of Christmas Day, Brown expects to see elevated prices the entire week of December 20 to 28. "December 28 especially looks like a day to avoid. If you can travel the week before or after Christmas week you'll find better prices."You can often find cheaper fares flying on Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year's Day, although it's certainly not a fun way to spend the holiday.
3. Use Flexible Search Tools to Find the Cheapest Days
If you can be flexible at all with when you fly, even if it's for only one leg of your journey, it pays to use a flexible date search tool to pinpoint the cheapest travel dates. "You can often save $75 or $100 just by traveling one day earlier or later—it's a no brainer," says Brown. Many of the airlines and most of the online fare booking and comparison sites have such tools, including Expedia, Farecast, Hotwire, Kayak, Orbitz, Priceline, and Travelocity, among others.
4. Fly Direct
"Consider taking a direct flight, if available," says Hoffman. "You may have to pay a little more, but the peace of mind that comes with not worrying about connections or lost luggage may be well worth it."
5. Leave Extra Time for Making Connections
"If you must make a connection, try to leave at least two hours in between flights to account for any delays and to make sure there's plenty of time for your bags to be transferred to your next flight," says Brown. This can be a challenge, because airline sites and other travel seller websites automatically pair connecting flights for you, sometimes leaving barely half an hour between flights—hardly enough time to deplane and go into another terminal.
"If you can, use a travel agent or phone agent to build a longer layover between flights," suggests George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, a SmarterTravel.com sister site. "You can build a layover of up to four hours if you do it with a live agent."
6. Avoid Connecting Through Delay-Prone Airports
Certain airports are more prone to delays than others during the holidays, especially high-volume airports with snow or fog problems in the winter. Reports from Hotwire show that the past two Novembers, the three New York area airports (JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark) had the worst or close to worst on-time performance of all the major airports, followed by San Francisco, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Chicago O'Hare. For December 2006 and 2007, Chicago O'Hare had the worst record, with the New York airports not far behind. Denver and Minneapolis also fared poorly in 2007.
7. Book the Earliest Flight of the Day
"When possible, fly early in the day, as most delays occur after noon," says Hoffman.
8. Consider Airline Capacity When Booking
Unlike in past years, passengers will now have to consider airline capacity—the number of routes an airline flies and the size and frequency of its flights on those routes. "When deciding what air carrier to book with for the holidays, consider the frequency of their departures from your home airport," says Bason. "You'll have much more flexibility if you choose a carrier that has a high number of flights from your home airport to your destination on any given day. The carrier with just one or two flights might be cheaper, but you could end up losing out if your flight gets canceled."
9. Weigh Your Departure Airport Options Carefully
SmarterTravel.com has often advocated using smaller secondary airports. This holiday season, doing so may not be the best choice, even if the alternative is exceptionally busy. Because of capacity cuts, which primarily have hit smaller airports particularly hard, fares have increased significantly from some of these airports. "From an airfare perspective, the bigger airports have more airline carriers and competition and so will have better fares," says Fridgen.
10. Book a Refundable Ticket
Airfarewatchdog's Hobica recommends this sneaky strategy for folks who want to ensure they get to their destination. "The airlines will hate me for saying this, but consider buying a fully refundable backup ticket," says Hobica. "If you have a backup refundable ticket, you can then make the decision whether to use it or not. If you don't use the ticket you get a refund." However, refundable tickets cost quite a bit more than regular fares, so if you do use one, you'll be out a lot of money.
11. Don't Count on Flying Standby
"Do not assume that you'll be able to get on a flight by getting on the standby list," says Bason. "It used to be that you'd get on the standby list and feel like you'd have a 50/50 chance of getting on the flight. Not anymore."
12. Once You Book, Check Back on Flight Status Frequently
You might think when you book and pay for a certain flight at a certain time you're entitled to that flight and time, but the airlines don't agree, and thanks to continued capacity cuts, your final itinerary could look quite different from the one you booked. "The further out you book the more likely you are to see a change to your schedule, so check back on your flight frequently," says Brown. If during the booking process the airline or travel seller gives you the chance to sign up for flight alerts, be sure to do so. "Make sure whatever company you book with has your most up-to-date contact information as the airlines may try to contact you to inform you about flight changes."
In the coming weeks, SmarterTravel will post more holiday travel tips, including ways to troubleshoot problems that arise at the airport. In the meantime, if you have any advice for holiday travel, send an email to email@example.com.
(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com and Hotwire.)