Image: travelers at airport
Marcio Jose Sanchez  /  AP
Travelers wait to enter terminals Dec. 21, 2009, at the San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco. Forecasts for higher fares and crowded planes suggest travelers should book their 2010 holiday plans now.
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updated 10/6/2010 4:54:55 PM ET 2010-10-06T20:54:55

No one wants to pore over holiday airfares, looking for the best deal, like cramming for a final exam. Instead of being a student, be savvy. The travelers who get the best airfares this holiday season will be those who searched the smartest, not the longest.

The trick: You'll have to know the right time to look. There are "sweet spots" in which to get the best deals this year, fare experts say, and one of those starts this week.

When to book
You can save a bundle by booking early, but what if you haven't decided if you're headed to grandma's yet? If you're not ready to book, don't worry. Procrastinators still might score low fares, despite the fact there are more travelers and fewer seats this year.

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For Thanksgiving and Christmas flights, fares will be at lowest through next week, according to historical data analyzed by Expedia for The Associated Press. Ticket prices are about 10 to 20 percent lower now than they will be in just a couple of weeks, said Daniel Kissin, Expedia's manager of strategy and analysis.

After next week, Thanksgiving fares will start to climb, peaking about three weeks ahead of the holiday. For Christmas travel, ticket prices will likely be highest in mid-November, Kissin said.

But procrastinators take note: There should be a period after those peaks when fares will fall — two weeks before Thanksgiving and two weeks before Christmas — as airlines evaluate their bookings.

A word to the wise. Don't wait for a big, flashy sale. Both price drops probably will be under the radar. So it's best to comparison shop on various sites to find the best price. The chance for spectacular deals with the holidays looming is less likely than in the past two years.

And if you know your plans, booking sooner is always better than later. Procrastinating doesn't usually pay when you don't have flexibility with your travel dates or destination, said Travelocity senior editor Genevieve Shaw Brown.

"To me it doesn't make a lot of sense to roll the dice," she said. "I don't think there's a lot of opportunity for last-minute deals, but if you want one, you'll have to be flexible" with travel times.

Travelers will have more flexibility — and more opportunity to get cheaper flights — around Christmas because travel isn't concentrated in one weekend, as it is for Thanksgiving.

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When to fly
For Thanksgiving flights, it's cheapest this year to fly out on Thanksgiving Day (Thursday) and return on Tuesday, according to Brown. An average fare on those travel days is $293, compared with $463 for a flight leaving the Tuesday before the holiday and returning Sunday. Avoid flying on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, if you can. Fares are much more expensive and there could be headaches at the airport because it's one of the heaviest travel days of the year.

Fees
Many people are probably well-versed in bag fees by now, but there are other fees to look out for that might take holiday travelers by surprise.

AirTran last month raised its first checked bag fee to $20 from $15. Most major airlines' checked baggage fees have remained steady at $25. If you're flying Spirit Airlines, don't forget about the new carry-on bag fee that started Aug. 1. That can run up to $45.

American Airlines now charges $19 to $39 for seats in the first few rows of coach. You can only book those seats at airport kiosks. Airlines that charge extra for certain seats include United Airlines, Continental Airlines Inc., US Airways Group Inc., JetBlue Airways Corp. and Spirit.

Although they're baked into fares and invisible to travelers, peak day surcharges will return this year. A fee of $10 to $30 will come with fares on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after, as well as popular travel days around Christmas.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Holiday travel? Book now, say experts

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