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Top 10 tips for booking holiday flights

While you'll need something of a miracle to find a decent Thanksgiving deal this late in the game, our money-saving tips will definitely help you get away for less than you'd expect over the December holidays.
/ Source: Sherman's Travel

The holidays are just around the corner, and if you're anything like us, you’re probably hoping you won’t have to pay an arm and a turkey leg to get home to celebrate. Indeed, there's good reason to say "bah humbug" this holiday season, as the current economic crisis hit the airlines even earlier this year (thanks to rising fuel costs), and their response — hiking ticket prices, adding new in-flight fees, and cutting the number of flights servicing various routes — pretty much guarantees we'll pay more for our holiday trip than we're all used to this year. But there is some good news: While you'll need something of a miracle to find a decent Thanksgiving deal this late in the game (Tip: Our editors found some great deals by comparing rates online), our money-saving tips for booking holiday flights will definitely help you get away for less than you'd expect over the December holidays. Here's to a merry money-saving holiday!

1. Expect (and accept) to pay more this year
The airfare tracking experts at Farecast.com have projected that holiday fares for 2008 are up more than 30 percent on average over those from 2007, and our editorial staff contends from our own searches that this is indeed one of the highest year-to-year increases we can recall. So, take a deep breath and make peace with the fact that unless you manage to nab the deal of the year, you’re going to have to dish out more to fly home for the holidays this year. Expect it, accept it, and (if, fingers crossed, you can still afford it!) buckle down to book your tickets just as soon as you possibly can.

2. Book now: Last minute fares won’t happen
Prices for flights will only increase the closer you get to the holidays, as inventory tightens. If you see a good deal, don’t dilly-dally — snatch it up on the spot, especially if you intend to fly at peak travel times, like the day after Christmas. Airlines have little incentive to discount this year, thanks to the old law of supply and demand: Passenger demand remains extremely high, while airlines’ capacity cuts have trimmed down available seats.

Leave procrastination to the gamblers, or to those who are thinking of heading out on spur-of-the-moment vacation for the holidays and don’t have any particular destination in mind. While you just might find a great late-breaking sale to Timbuktu, chances are that any digestible airfares to get to Turkey Day at Grandma’s house in Boston will have been long gobbled up. In short, it’s never too early to book your holiday travel — as soon as you know your loose dates and destination, book your flight.

3. Be flexible: Avoid peak travel daysIf you have flexibility with your travel days, you're pretty much guaranteed savings. By all means, know — and avoid — peak holiday travel dates, especially the Wednesday before and the Sunday after Thanksgiving, December 23, December 26, and January 2. With Christmas, like Thanksgiving, falling on a Thursday this year, delaying your return trip to the following Tuesday or Wednesday, as opposed to the weekend, can translate to huge savings. Do use fare search engines that feature a “flexible dates” search, like Kayak’s, Travelocity’s, and Orbitz’s, among others, which will allow you to search the cheapest fares available over a range of dates.

Additionally, if you have any remaining vacation days, the holidays are the perfect time to cash them in — the lengthier your trip, the further away you can travel from the holiday itself, when there is the most demand and highest costs for flights. And don’t shy away from those off-peak early morning or red-eye flights, which are typically priced lower, and have the added bonus of boasting fewer delays (especially the crack-of-dawn morning flights), as the airports are less congested with both people and planes taking off.

4. Fly on the holiday itselfWhile it may not be the most ideal option for maximizing your holiday time, fares for flights on the holidays themselves can be exceptionally discounted. Most people are home or where they need to be on these days, so jetting off Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve (particularly later in the evening, closer to celebration time), or New Year’s Day (when most folks are nursing New Year’s Eve hangovers) can translate to big savings and less hassle due to fewer travelers competing for seats. However, keep in mind that there is some degree of risk here, as delays or cancellations could mean foregoing the planned festivities altogether. As a workaround, some families opt to celebrate on alternative days in order to take advantage of these discounted fares.

5. Consider alternate airportsIf the city you’re leaving from (or headed to) is serviced by several airports, include them all in your search. For Chicago, you’ll want to check out smaller Midway in addition to O’Hare; in San Francisco, don’t overlook Oakland, San Jose, or Sacramento airports on top of SFO; in New York, you’ll have the biggies at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark, but Westchester County and Macarthur Airports are viable alternatives, as well.

It might even be worthwhile to drive an hour or two to a neighboring city's airport when factoring in the savings (Chicago-area travelers have turned up great deals at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell Airport, for instance). These secondary airports, which often host smaller budget airlines, can offer additional perks aside from savings, too, like fewer crowds, cheaper parking, and less frequent delays — just don’t factor out the cost of gas to get there. Similarly, if a smaller regional airport is the closest one to you or to your destination, keep in mind that larger airports may offer more airlines that service your route — and therefore, more competitive pricing. Always keep all of your options on the table.

6. Factor new airline fees into travel costs2008 has been the year of new airline fees, and travelers who haven’t taken to the skies in a few months will be in for a rude awakening this holiday season. Carriers are now charging for everything from checking your bags to booking an aisle seat, and even for simple things like headsets or a bottle of water. Consider that while American may indeed offer the lowest airfare on paper, if you’re going to be checking in a bag, flying with Delta or Southwest, for instance, may very well be the more cost-effective option, given that they don’t charge the $15 fee for your first checked bag like American does. Read our Top 10 Ways to Avoid New Airline Fees for expert tips on avoiding the fees of the à la carte menu in the sky. You can also Download our New Airline Fees chart for a quick-and-easy guide to the current luggage and in-flight fees being levied by airlines.

7. Shop around on many sites, including airlines’Don’t leave any stone unturned when scouting airfare deals on the Net. Online travel agents like Travelocity, Expedia, and Orbitz offer huge amounts of flight inventory, while Kayak is another great site that compiles “scraped” prices from numerous airline sites (often sans the booking fees). ShermansTravel’s nifty QuickSearch tool offers a great means of searching multiple sites (including the above-mentioned), while only having to enter your travel information once. We might be biased, but it really does make comparison shopping a breeze! Don’t forget to go straight to airlines’ Web sites, as well: Popular budget carriers like Southwest and JetBlue, for instance, don’t list their fares with most online travel agents, and you can also save on third-party ticketing fees by booking through the airlines’ sites directly. You may also want to check out newer Web tools like FareCompare.com and Farecast.com, which serve to research and predict fare prices and trends — they’ll give you a good idea of the going rate of your trip — and whether to buy now or to wait.

8. Be prepared to layover to cut costsAirlines’ recent route cutbacks mean quite simply that there are fewer non-stop flights out there right now, leaving those that do remain in higher demand — and therefore, pricier. If you come across a reasonable non-stop flight, we highly recommend booking it on the spot — the peace of mind and ease of travel alone may be worth a slightly higher price tag. But it’s more likely that booking an itinerary that includes a layover will be the real money-saver, in which case you’ll need to be conscientious of booking wisely. Always allow for sufficient time during the connection, particularly during the busy holiday season when delays are expected and winter weather is a factor — we recommend a minimum of two hours.

Also, attempt to use the same airline for both legs of the journey, so that their personnel will be more likely to assist you in the event of a botched connection. Finally, avoid delay-prone airports if at all possible — those in the NYC area and Chicago’s O’Hare are among the worst culprits. Being stranded at the airport is certainly no way to spend your Christmas (and how would Santa ever know where to find you?!)

9. Book a flight & hotel package for overall valueIf you'd rather not sleep on Aunt Edna's couch this Thanksgiving, consider booking an air-and-hotel vacation together, which can save you a bundle over booking each component separately. Locking in one of the great-value hotel bargains that pop up around the holidays can really help balance out the overall cost efficiency of the trip.

Indeed, flights are on the steep side this year, but we’ve also noted hotels posting even lower holiday rates than in years’ past, in an attempt to lure guests in the face of rising airfares and a sagging economy. Business hotels boast particularly good deals around the holidays, when they’re completely devoid of their normal clientele — do look to hotels near convention centers and business districts for some of the best package rates. Again, ShermansTravel’s QuickSearch tool offers a great means of comparing holiday rates on several package provider sites, while just having to enter your travel information once.

10. Get grounded: Look into trains, buses & carsIf you’re within a reasonable distance of your destination, do look into modes of ground transportation as alternatives to flying. Gas costs have dipped down quite a bit since their shocking highs some months back, and if you’re traveling with several family members, car-pooling can be a really economic option — look into a site like AAA’s Fuel Cost Calculator (www.fuelcostcalculator.com) for an estimate on gas costs based on your car model and itinerary.

Bus travel is another good option, especially given the new breed of “boutique” bus lines that have popped up in recent years between popular cities, like DC2NY (routes between Washington, D.C. and N.Y.C.; www.dc2ny.com) or Lux Bus America (routes between Anaheim and Las Vegas; www.luxbusamerica.com). And lastly, don’t overlook hassle-free trains: They’re rarely delayed, don’t contend with traffic, and will allow you to kick back, relax, and enjoy that pretty winter scenery.

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