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Three tips for saving on holiday airfare

SmarterTravel

If you’re traveling for the holidays this year—for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, or New Year’s—be prepared to fork over your credit card. Experts predict that this will be one of the busiest holiday seasons to date. Strapped-for-cash airlines have been struggling with astronomical jet fuel prices all year, and recently have begun cutting flights to save cash, a move that may drive prices up even more.

In fact, Priceline.com recently reported that average ticket prices for Thanksgiving travel are 12 to 15 percent higher than 2004’s prices, while tickets for the December holidays are 15 to 25 percent higher.

Fewer flights and high demand from travelers will make seats—affordable or otherwise—scarce if you wait to book. However, being aware of three basic tactics can make all the difference in what you pay for your holiday flight.

Book early

Across-the-board, experts advise booking early. In fact, Kari Swartz, Expedia.com’s product manager for leisure travel, says that it’s getting down to the wire even for Thanksgiving travel; she recommends finalizing December holiday plans now. Likewise, Barbara Messing, vice president of customer experience at Hotwire.com, advises, “If you see a deal, don’t wait to book your flight. Fares will rise, and inventory will tighten, as we get closer to the holidays.”

Therefore, the traditional seven-day-advance-purchase booking deadlines may not apply for your holiday plans. As we’ve noted before, it’s generally not worth holding out for a last-minute deal that may or may not come. The moral of this story is to book early (and better yet, book now) for the best prices and availability.

Know when to fly

With the beginning of Hanukkah, as well as Christmas and New Year’s Day falling on Sundays, it’s important to be flexible with your dates whenever possible. Messing notes that this year, the off-peak travel dates are November 20, 21, 24, 25, 26, 29, and 30; December 19, 25, and 31; and January 1 and 4 through 8. Try pricing flights on these off-peak dates for lower prices. If you are unable to jet out of town a day earlier or later, try flying at off-peak times. Early-morning, late-night, or red-eye flights may be less expensive than mid-morning flights on some routes.

Expedia has a booking tool that may help you determine which days are cheapest. The Fare Compare calendar displays fare differences for popular routes on a variety of dates. Even if you don’t book on Expedia, using the calendar can give you a general idea of which dates to target in your online searches.

Be flexible

If you’re not planning to visit family for the holidays, think about traveling during another week altogether. Messing says, “Travelers should consider traveling in early November before Thanksgiving week. Or, travel after Thanksgiving; airfares will be lower between November 28 and December 12 during the ‘shoulder season’ between holidays.” You will likely be able to save a significant amount if you avoid the holiday travel season.

If you can’t skip out a few weeks before the actual holiday, play around with alternate airports in your online searches. Or, consider booking an airfare-and-hotel vacation package. According to Swartz, travelers save an average of $189 by booking bundled packages rather than each component separately.

As you’re finalizing your holiday travel plans, keep the experts’ tips in mind. By booking early, knowing which dates are likely to be least expensive, and remaining flexible, you’re more likely to get a reasonable price on airfare for those holiday flights.

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