Pricing out early-bird Thanksgiving fares

MarketWatchSeptember 29, 2012 

Turkey may be the centerpiece of Thanksgiving Day, but consumers who want to get home for the holiday should focus first on a different kind of fowl: early-bird airfare.

With seven weeks to go, experts say now is the best time to book for many travelers. Fares during the week of Thanksgiving are already up 6 percent compared with last year, reports CheapAir.com.

“The No. 1 factor that determines how expensive a flight will be is how full it is, and most Thanksgiving-week flights are already reasonably booked,” said Jeff Klee, chief executive of CheapAir.com.

Fares will only go up, as the cheaper seats sell out and desirable flights fill up.

“If you’re one of these people who really want a nonstop at the perfect time on Wednesday, you better lock in,” said Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com , a fare-tracking site.

Travelers with the least leeway to wait on booking are those who want to travel the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (Nov. 21) or head home the Sunday or Monday after (Nov. 25 and 26). Those tend to be among the busiest travel days of the year, which means that there are rarely fare sales and also that flights sell out early, said Courtney Scott, a spokeswoman for Travelocity. Experts say it’s not uncommon to see last-minute prices that are 50 percent to 75 percent higher than typical fares for a nonholiday week. Right now, though, passengers can still find deals. On a short-haul flight (500 miles or less), anything for $120 or cheaper is a bargain, Seaney said.

It’s also worth buying now if you see a mid-haul flight (500 to 1,500 miles) for $300 or less, or a long-haul flight (more than 1,500 miles) for under $425.

If you have a more flexible schedule, you may be able to put off booking until early October. Pricing is typically better on off-peak days, notably Thanksgiving Day and the Saturday after (Nov. 24), Scott said. Travelers may even see a few fare sales or other price drops if demand on those days is softer than airlines expect. But picking a cheap flight on the holiday has its risks: Cutting it that close could mean you miss Thanksgiving dinner if bad weather or another problem triggers delays and cancellations, Klee said. Aim for an early morning, nonstop flight if possible – and if you have to connect, try for a warm-weather hub that’s less likely to experience snowstorms.

As open seats dwindle and fares increase, it’s also important to test tried-and-true strategies, such as checking alternate airports and buying fares on Tuesday afternoons – typically the cheapest point in the weekly fare cycle. It’s a long shot, but travelers looking to keep costs in check might try redeeming their airline miles for a free or discounted seat, Seaney said.

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