Thanksgiving Flight Shopping Guide

If flying this holiday season wasn't unnerving enough, Americans will face "a record number of airplane seats being chopped." FareCompare chief technology officer and co-founder Graeme Wallace says, "The total seat reduction from the Saturday before Thanksgiving to the Monday after the holiday is more than 600,000. If you look at the data in terms of reduced flights, it is over 8,000."

To make matters even more challenging, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year, and there are now 35,000 less seats to fill.

If we review the past five years, there has been a reduction of almost 3,000 flights and 190,000 seats on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving alone.

Comparing Flight Capacity 2011 v. 2006: Wednesday Before Thanksgiving

American, Delta and United, Frontier and AirTran are cutting the most capacity. Conversely, Southwest and US Airways have actually added flights.

Understanding Capacity Reduction

Consider this: If the airlines can fill every plane, this means they won't have to sell seats at a discounted price. Is it cheaper to fly with empty seats than to discount them?

Wallace answers, "Basically, if the airlines can keep capacity down and demand is still high, people just have to brace themselves and purchase the more expensive ticket. The only time we see holiday flight sales are when an airline decides to break rank and advertise a sale; other airlines are forced to follow if they want to compete."

Comparing Flight Capacity the Days Before and After Thanksgiving

How Will Reduced Capacity Affect Planes?

The airlines will do a bit of juggling between regional jets and standard body planes to account for fewer planes in the air. For instance, 757, 777 and 767 have all had their capacities reduced while bigger plans, like the Airbus 320 and the 737's will be more common. Wallace mentioned one notable change, "This year, you can't fly a 747 from Denver to Chicago."

How to Buy a Ticket for Thanksgiving

First and foremost, you need to start shopping now for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The bottom line is that if you want to buy today, regardless of travel dates, airfares are averaging about $40 more than they were at the same time last year.

The following graph represents the average difference in lowest published fare from the top 50 cities in the US/CA (to each other) for travel the week of Thanksgiving.

When Should You Buy Your Ticket?

If you wait until the end of October to buy your ticket, you may see prices spike. In the graph below, you can see that people really started searching for Thanksgiving flights in mid-October and searches spiked at the beginning of November -- meaning that many people procrastinated!

This year's search trending seems to mirror last year. Keep in mind that airlines increased the majority of fares by more than $100 from Oct. 10 to Nov. 19 in 2010. In short, the longer you wait, the more you will pay.

FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney's Top 5 Holiday Flight Shopping Tips

1. Beginning next week, you should add $5.00 (round-trip) to your Thanksgiving ticket price each day you procrastinate. Once we hit the last week in October, add $5.00 (round-trip) to your Christmas ticket each day you procrastinate.

2. Avoid the busiest travel days on at least half of your trip. The good news is that airlines are telling you through their surcharges which days to avoid.

3. Fees can be good this time of year. For instance, "cut in line" fees like Southwest's EarlyBird Check-In will ensure you have the opportunity to pack those overly-stuffed carry-on bags in the overhead bins.

4. Be a Boy Scout: Prepare for the worst - delays, slowdowns airport waits, etc.

5. Use technology - setup flight status alerts for you and your family members so they don't head to the airport in inclement weather if your flight is delayed or cancelled.

All analysis gleaned from FareCompare's proprietary database of air travel data.

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