Winter holiday flights are often priced 75 percent above the norm, but there are ways around that frightening figure, starting with booking with enough time to spare, knowing the system and watching out for hidden fees.
"[Airfare is kind of] like the stock market — you want to buy low and fly high," says George Hobica, founder and present of AirfareWatchdog.com. Because it's the busiest travel time of the year, airlines take advantage of the timing to charge a large premium.
Here's what you need to know to get the best deals:
Book Thanksgiving before Halloween — and winter holidays 80 days beforehand
Although this is still the priciest season of the year, the good news for potential Thanksgiving travelers is that flight prices are down 7.8 percent from last year, according to airfare prediction app Hopper.
A current domestic round-trip flight will set you back an average of $323, and although prices won't change much during the month of October, mark Halloween on the calendar as your booking deadline. Each day the clock ticks past October 31 will cost you an estimated $1.50 per day on flight prices, then $6 per day in the last 10 days before Turkey Day.
Each day the clock ticks past October 31 will cost you an estimated $1.50 per day on flight prices.
And if you're the ultimate frugal traveler? Thanksgiving day itself is the cheapest day to travel. A close second? Leaving Monday, November 21 and returning Friday, November 25, which could save you 20 percent compared to the most popular travel days.
If you're traveling for the winter holidays, look to purchase airfare 80 days before your departure. Every day closer to Christmas that you wait could cost you about $1.60 for average round-trip holiday airfare. Again, prices will spike in the last 10 days before the holiday, and travelers looking to save even more money should aim to fly on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or New Year's Eve. Go at the crack of dawn and you'll still have time to celebrate.
When planning a trip with others, it pays to know about "fare buckets"
Finally, here's a little bit of the backstory on how airfares break down. On your most recent flight, someone else nearby probably paid a lot more or less than you did for his or her ticket depending on when they booked. That's because airlines release seats in different "fare buckets" at different times, according to Zach Honig, editor-in-chief of ThePointsGuy.
Let's say you're booking flights for your family, a group of friends, or you and your significant other. If it's more than just you, start by using the flight search bar for the number of people you're planning to travel with, then note the combined price. Then, go back and complete the search for just one person, multiply the single ticket cost it gives you by the number of people traveling, and note if that total amount is lower than the total you got in the previous search. If so, there might be one or more tickets available in the cheaper fare bucket, but the airline is only showing you the fare bucket that has all the requested tickets in it.
Maybe that $250 ticket was the last one in the cheapest fare bucket, but since you requested four tickets, the airline showed you a more expensive fare bucket.
How do you play this? Say your family of four is looking for a round-trip flight from New York to Los Angeles, and when you search for the four flights together, you get a total price of $2,000. When you search for just one ticket, you find a round trip ticket for $250. Maybe that $250 ticket was the last one in the cheapest fare bucket, but since you requested four tickets, the airline showed you a more expensive fare bucket that had all four seats available — therefore costing you more money. Buy the cheapest ticket(s) one or two at a time as long as they're available. Then buy the rest.
Shop around — and take hidden fees into account
Feel loyal to a specific airline? That's a great way to build up miles. But you should never rule out shopping around for the best overall option. Google Flights is a great way to compare flight prices from different airlines all in one place, and be sure to compare one-way ticket prices with round-trip. The tool also recently added a price prediction tool, which lets users know after they've selected specific flights when the fare is set to expire and how much the new fare will likely be, based on historical data. This is because when airlines load fares into their systems, they put in a date and time for that price to expire and be reloaded.
Google Flights' prediction of that new price isn't always spot-on, says Honig, but the time the current fare will expire is usually accurate.
Don't book the cheapest fare right away without researching the airline's potential hidden costs.
Keep in mind, though, that Google Flights usually doesn't pull in Southwest Airline fares, so it might be prudent to take a look at those on the side as well. It also pays to sign up for "saved flights" alerts there or airfare alerts on sites like AirfareWatchdog.com.
Finally, watch out for hidden fees. Don't book the cheapest fare right away without researching the airline's potential hidden costs. Sometimes, low-cost carriers like Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines charge for printing boarding passes at the airport or bringing a carry-on bag on board.
"If it looks like it's too good to be true, there's a pretty good chance it is," says Honig.
With Hayden Field