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How to beat rising holiday airfares

This year, waiting to book for Thanksgiving travel carries a steeper penalty.

By MSN Money Partner Oct 13, 2011 3:12PM

This post comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner site SmartMoney.

 

SmartMoney on MSN MoneyThis Thanksgiving, procrastinating travelers have little to give thanks for. Flying home for turkey is already more expensive this year, and getting pricier by the day.

 

For the holiday period spanning Nov. 21-29, domestic flights are already up about 4% compared with the holiday week last year, at an average of $376 round trip, according to booking site Travelocity.

 

And this year, as airlines have cut capacity, there are fewer cheap seats and desirable flights to go around -- which means that the higher prices that usually kick in for last-minute travelers will take effect even sooner.

 

"You have the recipe for higher ticket prices," says Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com. "For travelers this year, it's really about getting a better bad deal."

 

The way to avoid that is not by holding out for a better fare or last-minute sale. That's a recipe for a middle seat on a red-eye. Instead, Seaney says, act fast to grab fares while they're still reasonable. That would include a short flight (less than two hours) for $150 or less, a medium flight (up to four hours) for $300 or less, or a longer flight for under $450.

 

Travelers faced with more expensive options could try redeeming some of their miles, he says, although reward seats are likely to be in short supply as well. Post continues after video.

Flexibility also pays off more this year. Last year, airlines imposed what they called peak-travel day surcharges of up to $40 every day during the holiday week, except for Thanksgiving Day. Those surcharges haven't disappeared, but this year most airlines are only charging them on the Sunday and Monday after Thanksgiving -- Nov. 27 and 28.

 

Avoiding those travel days -- which carry higher fares, too -- could save a traveler more than $100, says Melissa Klurman, a contributing editor for Travelocity. Someone flying out Monday, Nov. 21, and back on Sunday, Nov. 27, for example, would pay just under $500, on average. Coming back on Saturday, Nov. 26, one day early, would cut the bill to $374, she says.

 

Travelers looking for truly low airfares have two options, each imperfect. Flying on Thanksgiving Day is cheap -- as much as $100 cheaper than flight combos on other days, says Klurman, with the cheapest an out-Thursday, home-Friday combo for an average $281 -- but it kills a margin of error for bad weather or other problems.

 

The other option requires flexibility around location. If the family is willing to gather in the Caribbean or Florida, there are still bona fide deals, says Kari Dilloo, a spokeswoman for Bing Travel. Tickets from New York to Miami during Thanksgiving week average $195, 16% less than last year, she says, and Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas has a $400 air credit and two nights free for travelers who stay a week during Nov. 18-28.

 

Europe, though, still isn't a bargain: Trans-Atlantic fares during Thanksgiving week are up 9% compared with last year.

 

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