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Unwrapping the secrets to finding affordable holiday airfare

The semester may only be a month old, but you should be finalizing your travel plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas break now or else risk paying too much or not getting a flight at all. Heavy demand for flights during the holidays makes early booking and flexibility essential.

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The online travel agent Orbitz reports that more travelers are booking holiday flights earlier this year than in 2002. And, while demand for holiday flights appears greater this year, the airlines have actually cut the number of flights during this period, so competition for the cheap fares will be more intense. As the holidays approach, it?s likely that the available seats on a flight will become progressively more expensive.

Avoid flying on blackout days

Aside from booking early, you’ll also have to be flexible about your travel dates to get the best price. First, you should avoid flying on the holiday blackout days, when normal sales and discounts do not apply. Each airline’s blackout dates vary, so you may need to inquire with each carrier before booking a flight.

To get an idea of how extensive airline blackout periods are during the holidays, we asked StudentUniverse what days were blacked out by the airlines that supply its student fares: American, Northwest, US Airways, and United. Here is what we found out:

Airline Thanksgiving blackouts Christmas blackouts
American none December 16 to January 4, 2004
Northwest November 26 and 30; December 1 December 19, 20, and 28; January 4, 2004
US Airways November 26, 27, and 30; December 1 December 19, 20, and 28; January 3 and 4, 2004
United November 20 to December 2 December 20 to January 4, 2004

If you’re traveling over Thanksgiving break, American looks like your best bet, with no blackout days at all. For Christmas, Northwest and US Airways have the most flexible schedules. United is the least generous, with several days preceding and following the holidays completely blacked out. However, United is the only carrier that hasn’t blacked out Sunday, December 19. All the airlines have blacked out January 4, 2004, meaning that if your classes start up Monday, January 5, you’ll have to fly back earlier.

You can find student fares from StudentUniverse on its search flights page.

Be flexible about travel dates and airports

Even if you avoid blackout days, it can still be difficult to find cheap seats on your desired dates of travel. You may have to consider other dates or even flights to and from secondary airports. For example, if you want to fly to Boston’s Logan Airport (BOS) on a weekend day, but the fares are too high for your budget, consider flying on a weekday or flying to the nearby Providence Airport (PVD), and you may find cheaper seats.

Some online airfare agents have search tools that can help you to find lower fares if you have some flexibility with your travel dates or choice of airport. One of the more dynamic tools we’ve seen is Orbitz’ Flex Search, which looks for the cheapest flight combination over a range of days. You can search for flights over a wide time period or restrict your search to flights that fall within a day or two of your preferred travel dates.

This tool also has an option that will display flights to all airports within 70 miles of your departure and arrival cities. That means, for instance, if you are flying to New York, you won?t have to do a separate search for each of the three major New York Metro area airports. Fares to JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark will be displayed on the same results page.

For more information about the Orbitz tool and other online airfare search tools, read the Net Worthy column by Editor Jon Douglas. Another handy tool is SmarterTravel’s price-comparison feature, which you can use to compare fares from multiple airfare search engines and airline websites.

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