Plan ahead for cheapest, most bearable holiday travel
If you haven’t booked your holiday trip yet, there is no time to waste. Prices are already rising for the days around Thanksgiving as seats become more scarce and will start rising dramatically for the December holidays, if history is any guide.
Here’s what to expect if you’re traveling between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day:
■Fares: Holiday travelers may find a little something extra in their stocking — airfares should be a bit lower than last year.
After several years of increases above inflation, fares have dipped this year. In August, the last month for which numbers are available, the average domestic fare per mile was down 6.8 percent from a year earlier, according to Airlines for America, the industry trade group. Experts say that trend is continuing into the fall.
Counting tickets already purchased for peak travel days around Christmas, prices are 3 percent lower than last year, according to online travel company Hipmunk.
Christmas and New Year’s Day will fall on Fridays, meaning that many passengers will try to fly home that Saturday or Sunday. The result is that fares could be higher on those days but cheaper than last year on other days, said Jeff Klee, the CEO of CheapAir.com.
■Fees: While fares are falling, the airlines are making more money by charging fees for all sorts of things. The big ones are checked-bag and ticket-change fees.
If you want to avoid fees, you can fly on Southwest, which doesn’t charge for the first two bags or changing a ticket. Cut down on baggage by shipping gifts ahead of time or buying gift cards.
If you’re flying on the fee-laden discount airlines such as Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant, plan ahead: Print out your boarding pass before you get to the airport, make sure your carry-on will fit under the seat, and pay bag fees ahead of time — they cost more at the airport.
■Crowds: Don’t count on an empty middle seat to let you stretch out.
The leading U.S. airlines have been filling more than 80 percent of their seats. That includes early-morning and late-night flights, meaning that many during the more convenient hours are full.
Of course, those crowds start at the airport, so give yourself extra time to check bags and get through the security checkpoint.
■Stay current: Airline mobile apps keep you updated on schedule changes for your flight. Some have maps to help navigate busy airports and even find a decent meal, as do other apps such as GateGuru.
■Start airfare-shopping now: “We’ve actually seen Christmas and New Year’s fares come down quite a bit in the last month, which is a little bit surprising,” said Klee. He said prices are likely to start rising soon.