As oil prices continue to fluctuate, airlines are consolidating flights, cutting unprofitable routes, and using smaller planes. Though domestic flights have been cut as much as 14 percent between June 2007 and June, translating to fewer seats for sale and less desperation on behalf of the airlines to fill them, there’s still a discernible surge in flyer demand, especially around the holidays. Factor in a smattering of “peak travel surcharges” and a slew of a la carte airline fees and you have a recipe for a pricey trip. But there is hope if you act quickly. Find some of the best fares out there by referencing these money-saving tips for booking holiday flights, then compare airline rates online via ShermansTravel's nifty Travel Search tool.
Factor Airline Fees into Travel Costs
The airline fee boom is only getting worse, meaning what were once free amenities must now be factored in as part of the overall cost of travel. Bag fees account for a bulk of revenue for airlines, which can mean bad news for travelers. Bag fees raked in $2.7 billion in revenue last year, and fares for domestic flights have increased about 4.5 percent this year, with an average ticket costing about $375. Fare costs have increased 14 times this year, the most recent hike occurring in mid-October when Southwest Airlines’ increase of $4 to $10 per round trip was matched by all major U.S.-based carriers.
Checked bag fees remain the most widespread concern on holiday flights, and you’ll have to consider, for example, while an American or United flight may turn out the lowest rate quote on paper, if you’re going to be checking a bag, flying with budget carriers like JetBlue or Southwest may be the more cost-effective option. Neither charges $15 to $25 for your first-checked bag as other airlines do. Look into shipping gifts ahead of time rather than carrying them onboard; it may be more economical considering first-checked bag fees and hefty second-bag fees cost at least $35. Those with the Delta Skymiles American Express card may check their first bag free on Delta flights, and pass on the benefit to up to nine other people on the same reservation. Also strive to incorporate simple money-savers into your in-flight routine – bringing a bagged lunch, inflatable pillow, or headset can save you from doling out extra dough onboard.
Monitor Your Route for Best Fares
Unfortunately, there's no perfect science to locking in the season's lowest fares, as they seem to fluctuate on day-to-day (or even hour-to-hour!) whims. A recent survey by travel site kayak.com said fliers will find the best prices exactly 21 days before their trip. Those who book in that timeframe can pay the domestic average of $342 per ticket. A ticket for the same trip booked six months in advance can cost an average of $370. International travelers best bet is booking 34 days before departure. Average prices are about $977 per ticket, contrasting with $1,016 six months before the trip.
A savvy traveler's safest bet is to monitor rates on chosen routes for at least a few days (ideally more, based on your comfort level), to get a sense of a good price before booking. If you’re familiar with the going rates on said route outside of the peak holiday period, even better – you already have a good barometer of what you should normally be paying, and can anticipate the rate during the holiday timeframe will be at least 20 percent higher. Also consider using airfare tracking tools and signing up for fare change alerts at sites like FareCompare, Bing Travel, or Yapta.com.
Once you’ve established a benchmark for your holiday flight fare, you’ll know when to pounce. If the rate seems to be headed in a downward spiral, terrific – follow it for a few days to see how low it can go. However, if the price starts to rise, don’t wait more than a day or two before booking. And, if by chance your first search turns up an exceptional fare, don’t bother dillydallying to track the route. Snatch it up on the spot, especially if you intend to fly at peak travel times, like the day after Christmas.
Don’t Hold Out for Last-Minute Deals
Travel trends of yore have taught us flight prices will only increase as the holidays approach and inventory tightens. A rare exception to this rule of thumb was in 2008, and to a lesser degree, in 2009, when last-minute bookers were unpredictably rewarded with slashed fares. Leave procrastination to the gamblers, or to those who are thinking of heading out on a spur-of-the-moment vacation for the holidays without a particular destination in mind. While you just might find a great late-breaking sale to Timbuktu, chances are that any economical airfares to get to Turkey Day at Grandma’s house in Boston are long gone.
Be Flexible & Avoid Peak Travel Days
If you have flexibility with your travel days, you're pretty much guaranteed savings. Know – and avoid – peak holiday travel dates. The biggest travel days include the Wednesday before and the Sunday and Monday after Thanksgiving; December 23; December 26; December 27; January 2; and January 3. Flights on these dates are priced at a premium and, along with a handful of others, carry a “peak travel surcharge” (a fancy term airlines have coined for a fare increase on desirable travel days) averaging $20 to $40 each way on nearly all major carriers. With Christmas falling on a Tuesday this year, delaying your return trip to the following Friday or Saturday can translate to substantial savings. Use fare search engines that feature a “flexible dates” search – like Kayak, Travelocity, or Orbitz – which allows you to search the cheapest fares available over a range of dates.
If you have any remaining vacation days, the holidays are the perfect time to cash them in – the lengthier your trip, the further away you can travel from the holiday itself. And don’t shy away from those off-peak early morning or red-eye flights, which are typically priced lower, and have the added bonus of boasting fewer delays (especially the crack-of-dawn morning flights), as the airports are less congested with both people and plane traffic.
Book a Flight and Hotel Package for Overall Value
If you'd rather not sleep on Aunt Edna's couch this Thanksgiving, consider booking an air-and-hotel vacation together, which can save you a bundle over booking each component separately. Locking in one of the great-value hotel bargains that pop up around the holidays can help balance out the overall cost efficiency of the trip. Though holiday flights may be on the steep side, hotels often post bargain-basement rates in an attempt to fill up rooms during a traditionally slow period for leisure travelers. Business hotels boast particularly good deals around the holidays, when they’re completely devoid of their normal clientele – so research hotels near convention centers and business districts for some of the best package rates. Again, ShermansTravel’s Travel Search tool offers a great way to compare holiday rates on several package-provider sites without having to enter your travel information more than once.
Fly on the Holiday Itself
While it may not be the most ideal option for maximizing your holiday time, fares for flights on the holidays themselves can be exceptionally discounted – in fact, they’re the only days during the height of holiday travel period exempt from most airlines’ peak travel surcharge. Most people are home or where they need to be on these days, so jetting off Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve (particularly later in the evening, closer to celebration time), or New Year’s Day can translate to big savings and less hassle. However, keep in mind there is some degree of risk here; delays or cancellations could mean foregoing planned festivities altogether. As a workaround, some families opt to celebrate on alternative days.
Consider Alternate Airports
If the city you’re leaving from (or heading to) is serviced by several airports, include them all in your search for holiday flights. For Chicago, you’ll want to check out smaller Midway in addition to O’Hare; in San Francisco, don’t overlook Oakland, San Jose, or Sacramento airports on top of SFO; in New York, you’ll have the biggies at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark, but Westchester County and Macarthur Airports (on Long Island, in Islip) are viable alternatives. It might even be worthwhile to drive an hour or two to a neighboring city's airport when factoring in the savings (Chicago-area travelers have turned up great deals at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell Airport). These secondary airports, which often host smaller budget airlines, can offer additional perks aside from savings, too, like fewer crowds, cheaper parking, and less frequent delays – just don’t factor out the cost of ground transportation to get there. Similarly, if a smaller regional airport is the closest one to you or to your destination, keep in mind that larger airports may offer more airlines that service your route, and therefore, more competitive pricing. Always keep all options on the table.