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Flying home for the holidays

There's no place like home for the holidays -- and the airlines know it.

By Karen Datko Dec 21, 2009 12:58PM

This Deal of the Day comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner site SmartMoney.

 

Hoping to entice a few more budget-minded consumers to fly, many carriers have waived their advance-purchase requirements on tickets through early January, dropping select fares by more than 50%. (When policies are in place, fares rise precipitously within a week or so of departure, with last-minute bookers typically paying full fare or close to it.)

For example, a round-trip ticket between Dallas and New York City on Delta that sold Sunday for as much as $1,858 is currently going for $388 to $578, depending on your travel dates, according to booking site BestFares.com. You'll save 69% to 79%.

 

Although it may seem like airlines are getting in the holiday spirit, the temporary change in policy is entirely about profit. Holiday flights are already about 85% full, but airlines prefer full capacity (even overselling) when possible, says Tom Parsons,  chief executive for BestFares.com. "They're looking for some icing on the cake," he says.

 

Last-minute sales have the potential to impact all fliers over the holiday season -- not just those currently looking to book.

Here's what you need to know:

 

Fare-hunters

Flexibility is still key. Airlines are filling in spaces here and there on flights, not opening up a broad swath of seats, says George Hobica, the founder of fare-tracking site AirFareWatchdog.com. "I wouldn't say there are screaming bargains in every market," he says. "It's going to be sporadic." The lowest fares are still for the least-popular travel days -- Christmas and New Year's Day -- and the day immediately before each. You may also find better deals at small regional airports instead of the big hubs.

 

Mind the exceptions. Not all airlines are participating. Currently, only American, United, Delta, Northwest, US Airways, Frontier, AirTran and Midwest Airlines have waived their advance-purchase requirements. A few dates aren't covered either, says Parsons. Regular last-minute prices are still in effect for Dec. 27, Jan. 2 and Jan. 3, so steer clear of those dates. Regular advance-purchase policies go back into place for travel after Jan. 4.

 

Current ticket holders

Ask for a price adjustment. Travelers who already have tickets, especially those who booked in recent weeks when prices were higher, may be able to claim a refund for the difference in price, says Hobica. Carriers are typically willing to do so, provided you find a lower fare on the same flight.

 

JetBlue, Southwest and Alaska Airlines all offer vouchers for future travel. If you're flying on another airline, consider appealing only if the price difference is significant, he says. Most refund the difference less a ticket change fee of $100 to $150.

 

All travelers

Prepare for delays. Fuller flights increase the odds of a nasty domino effect if one flight is canceled due to mechanical problems or bad weather. Enticing last-minute bookings will leave fewer seats open, which means fewer openings to re-route stranded travelers. "We have to hope for no snow, no ice," says Parsons. "There's no wiggle room out there."

Check in early to reduce your chances of getting bumped off an overbooked flight, and add the carrier's toll-free customer service line to your cell phone for fast access in the event of a problem.

 

Related reading at SmartMoney:

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