DALLAS — If you haven't booked your holiday trip yet, there is no time to waste. Prices are 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:
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 purchased for peak travel days around Christmas, prices are 3 percent lower than last year, according to online travel company Hipmunk.
George Hobica, the founder of travel website airfarewatchdog.com, said the savings appear to be even bigger on routes flown by the discount carriers such as Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines. He said the major carriers are more aggressively matching the discounters' fares, which is great for consumers.
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.
Connecting flights are often cheaper than nonstops, but especially around the holidays you might decide that the added risk of missing your connection isn't worth saving a few bucks.
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.
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.
On top of that, airlines are reserving more seats for elite customers and those willing to pay extra for a choice seat — like a bit more legroom. That can make travel more difficult for families.
Airlines say gate agents try to help families sit together, especially those with small children, but don't count on a stranger to swap seats — he might have paid a $50 fee on top of his ticket price to get that aisle seat.
Of course, those crowds start at the airport, so give yourself extra time to check bags and get through the security checkpoint.
Despite the image of cattle cars in the sky, airlines do provide some amenities for little or no cost that can make holiday travel more bearable.
Websites such as Routehappy let you look up whether a flight has WiFi, power outlets and, in economy, fresh food for sale.
“Don't just think about price,” said Jason Rabinowitz, data research manager for Routehappy. “For $5 more, a flight on another airline or even a flight 20 minutes later on the same airline can get you free entertainment or free WiFi.” If your flight charges for WiFi, buying before you fly is almost always cheaper than buying on the plane — it might be $16 instead of $45, Rabinowitz said.
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.
Winter weather can cause flight delays. The Federal Aviation Administration website has a nationwide map showing where delays are occurring: http://www.fly.faa.gov.
People have debated the best time to buy airline tickets since flight attendants were called stewardesses. There is no single right answer — it varies by route and other factors.
“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, the CheapAir CEO. He said prices are likely to start rising soon and you'll have fewer choices of available flights. Avoid flying the Saturday and Sunday after Christmas.
Ideally, Thanksgiving travelers should have bought a ticket by now. According to Hipmunk, the best deals were back in August. Still, the company says, it's better to buy now than wait until mid-November, when fares will be up nearly 30 percent from the lowest levels.
You might find a bargain by flying on Thanksgiving Day. It's less busy than the day before and you can still arrive in time for turkey dinner. Just don't spoil your pumpkin pie by thinking about your return trip.