Dec. 3, 2012 at 3:08 PM ET
Before visions of sugarplums can dance in your head, there’s that pesky matter of finding good airfare for your flight home for the holidays – a task made more urgent by rising prices and an attempted fare hike.
US Airways on Saturday launched a "hefty," broad-based hike of $10 each way, FareCompare.com reported on Monday.
"That's definitely more aggressive than we've seen," FareCompare.com CEO Rick Seaney told NBC News.
"Certainly, if you're shopping for Christmas airline tickets on US Airways, you might want to wait. I'm not positive they're going to get a lot of takers on a $20 round-trip hike," he said.
Other airlines have yet to join in "which does not bode well for its ultimate success," he wrote in his blog. If no one matches, the airline's flights will show up on "page 15 of comparison shopping sites" and the carrier will have to roll back its prices to stay competitive, Seaney said. The process usually takes about three days.
It was the 15th attempted domestic airfare hike of 2012, with seven actually sticking around. In comparison, there were 22 airfare hike attempts last year and nine of them were successful, according to FareCompare.com. They are meant to test the appetite of consumers to pay more, Seaney said.
On Friday, Southwest matched fare increases on some routes around Florida – "a mini-hike, if you will," Seaney wrote, but he does not count the regional hike as one of this year's official price hikes.
But even without the latest attempted increase, holiday fliers will likely spend more this year to fly home for Christmas.
Based on the last two weeks of round-trip domestic ticket sales on Priceline.com, the national average holiday airfare was $469, or 4 percent more expensive than at this time last year, the travel website reported on Monday. Had you bought your ticket in early October, the price would have been $430.
“We are now bumping up against that 21-day advance purchase window for airline tickets,” said Priceline spokesman Brian Ek.
“For anyone who still has to buy holiday air tickets, the message is simple – the clock is ticking.”
If you can fly on Christmas Day, you’re going to find some bargains, said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. Can’t picture yourself at the airport while everyone is opening presents and drinking eggnog by the fireplace? Try traveling on the day after Christmas, which should still provide some price breaks.
“I think the sweet spot is leaving on December 19th and coming back on the 25th or 26th,” Hobica advised. “The thing I can say with most confidence is that fares are in an upward trend, but there are bargains every day.”
Seaney recommended leaving before Dec. 19, while Priceline expected the lowest fares will be found for travel on December 17, 18, 25, 27 and 31. Booking seats on flights early in the morning or late evening can also translate into a price break, so try to avoid the peak business hours of 8-10 a.m. and 5-7 p.m.
Hobica recommended fliers sign up for airfare alerts and keep in mind that airlines usually have sales on Tuesday and Wednesday. The prices you encounter will depend on your individual route and when you want to fly, but be aware that airlines actually change fares throughout the day, so keep checking back if you don’t like what you see.
“The problem with most consumers is they just check once and they give up. They shouldn’t do that, they really should keep on shopping,” Hobica said.
Priceline’s Ek expects that fares will start trending upward from now until the holidays, but Hobica believes there may be some last minute bargains because airlines often overreach at this time of year and then get panicky.
Airline consolidation, rather than airfare hikes, has the biggest effect fliers looking for bargains, Hobica said.
“Most air travel is discretionary – people don’t really have to fly anywhere unless they’re going to a funeral or relocating overseas or if it’s an emergency business meeting. People can stay home, they can drive or take the bus, the train, and the airlines know that so they usually don’t have much pricing power,” he said.
“What happened is airline consolidation has given them pricing power that they haven’t had for decades and we’re going to see more of that.”