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Traveling for Thanksgiving? Buy your tickets now

According to one travel website, sales of late-November tickets are 22% higher than this time last year. In other words, the cheapest seats are already taken.

By Donna_Freedman Aug 12, 2013 10:28AM

Logo: Airport check-in (Digital Vision/Getty Images/Getty Images)Right now your focus might be on those last few weekends at the beach or the lake, but take a moment to think about Thanksgiving.


Specifically: If you plan to travel for Turkey Day and haven't already booked your airline ticket, you've likely forfeited your shot at the best deals.

Or so says Mark Drusch of CheapOair,  who reports  a 22% increase in Thanksgiving travel bookings over this time last year.

"You're not going to get the cheapest seats because they're already gone. If you haven't booked your flights for Thanksgiving, book them immediately,” he says.

That's the bad news. The good news is that it's easier than ever to find the best of the remaining deals.

Travelers once had to compare prices manually, from ads in the travel section of the newspaper (remember those?) or, later, by clicking from airline website to airline website. Now airfare aggregators like CheapOair, Yapta or Bing Travel burn through millions of airfares to provide you with real-time ticket prices. (Bing is owned by Microsoft, the publisher of MSN Money.)

The key word is "real-time" -- if you find a decent deal on an airline ticket, buy it immediately. Hesitate even a few minutes and someone else might snare that seat.

Why the rush?

The number of available seats is about 20% less than five years ago, according to Drusch, a former executive at Continental, Delta and Lufthansa. Although demand continues to rise by 1% to 2% each year the airlines aren't adding more flights. Fewer available seats means fewer discounted tickets.

"The old days of hoping for a great sale at the last minute? I'm not going to say they're gone forever, but you're going to see a lot fewer (deals)," Drusch says.

Times have changed

The cost of air travel is more of a reality check than a price gouge, according to a blogger known as "Nomadic Matt." Up until 2008 it was a flyer's market: So many airlines were competing for consumer dollars that they were forced to offer cheap fares to get attention.

A lot has happened since then: a recession, mergers, airlines that went out of business. The surviving companies cut routes and flight schedules to save money, resulting in fuller planes -- and less reliance on discounts to fill seats.

In addition, fuel costs have gone sky-high. In 1996 airlines paid 55 cents per gallon. Today the price is approaching $3.

"With fewer planes, less competition and higher capacity, airlines can charge a lot more for tickets," says Nomadic Matt.

That's not to say prices don't fluctuate. They do, based on something called "load factor," or the percentage of seats already sold on a specific flight. If few seats have been sold and demand is flat, an airline lowers ticket costs. As demand rises, the price will, too.

The industry also uses computer modeling, comparing past sales with current booking trends. Plane filling more quickly than it once did? Up goes the price.

Home for the holidays

You don't need computer modeling to determine whether people will buy tickets close to Thanksgiving. They will.

Whether it's college students flying back for the holiday, families going to Grandmother's house or singles planning four-day-weekend getaways, the demand is as heavy as it ever was, according to Drusch.

Mourn the days of cheap airfare all you want, but then get real -- and book your ticket. If you want to play the odds, at least sign up for travel alerts from sites like CheapOair, Travelzoo or and be ready to pounce when something in your price range shows up.
Waiting until September or October means you'll almost certainly pay more. At that point you have no alternative but to pay the going rate -- and the going rate won't be cheap.

Have you bought tickets for Thanksgiving travel yet? Did you pay more than you did last year?

More on MSN Money:

Aug 12, 2013 4:20PM
Forget about Thanksgiving!! Plan on buying Christmas tickets now! I already booked mine and they're super cheap as of last month!
Aug 12, 2013 4:18PM
I wouldn't travel during holidays at gunpoint. Anyway, I work on holidays if they fall on a weekday.
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