How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off on Christmas Travel

PHOTO: $100 bill paper airplane

A colleague of mine had to work one Christmas, which meant a long plane trip. "I was feeling very sorry for myself until I noticed I had no seatmates," she laughed. "Truly a Christmas miracle!"

She'd unwittingly stumbled upon one of my "no rip-off" tricks for Christmas travel but you get to see all five of these tips in a single, compact column.

When I say rip-off I'm not suggesting airlines are hatching evil plots to scam unsuspecting passengers. Not at all; it's just business. Every company wants the biggest return possible just as we consumers want to pay the least. A true rip-off is when you pay more than you have to.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at farecompare.com

1. Avoid ripping yourself off through procrastination

If you don't have your Christmas or New Year's airfare yet, shop now. The longer you wait, the more you'll get ripped off. Are last-minute sales possible? Anything's possible but usually such sales not great, more like bargains-in-name-only. My motto is, you wait, you pay. Here's how much:

• An extra $5 per day: Add this to the price of airfare for each day you delay your purchase from late-Nov. through the second week in December.

• An extra $10 per day: The penalty doubles for ticket purchase delayed until the beginning in the second week of December.

2. Know the magic date when rip-off season begins

There are actually two magic dates to keep in mind when shopping for holiday airfare, and one of them marks the end of a big airline "dead zone" which is a fleeting period when people don't particularly want to fly so prices are genuinely cheap.

• Dec. 18 - The last day of the cheap post-Thanksgiving/pre-Christmas travel period

• Dec. 19 - The start of the high-priced Christmas/New Year's holiday travel period

Dec. 19 is a good date to remember because that's when prices rise on average between 30 percent and 70 percent, depending on where you're traveling.

One exception to this rule: Routes of roughly an hour or so (or less) between cities with lots of flights will cost about the same before and after the magic date. Examples include the Los Angeles-San Francisco route or the Dallas-Houston run. It could be worth traveling between large hub cities even if it means a longer drive to the airport, so compare airfare outside your home base.

3. Fly the non-rip-off days

When it comes to airfare, holiday shopping periods are really a search for the best of the bad deals. Some guidelines to help you find those better deals:

Cheapest days to fly: Travel early and you can still enjoy the holiday. • Christmas Day (Dec. 25)

• New Year's Day (Jan. 1)

Most expensive days to fly: Avoid these dates or try to travel on just one of them.

• Sunday before Christmas (Dec. 23)

• Sunday before New Year's (Dec. 30)

Less cheap: More expensive than traveling on the holiday but cheaper than some of the other days.

• Thursday after Christmas and New Year's (Dec. 27, Jan. 3)

• Saturday after Christmas and New Year's (Dec. 29, Jan. 5)

If you don't want to fly Christmas Day, you can still catch a break by splitting the difference and flying on one of the other "cheaper" days. Or travel early, on or before the magical date of Dec. 18.

4. Avoid rip-off non-stops

Here's an easy way to save 15 percent to 20 percent on most holiday flights: Take a connecting flight instead of a non-stop. Sure, non-stops are quicker and more convenient, but in most cases you'll pay a premium and who needs that?

5. Avoid baggage rip-offs Baggage rip-offs come in all guises but the most typical is the checked-bag fee; on most airlines this fee will set back a family of four by $200. Try these options instead:

• Fly JetBlue or Southwest: Both offer free checked-bags

• Use a carry-on bag: Free on most airlines (Rick Seaney recommended!)

• Check but consolidate: Family members can share bags to avoid overweight fees

This is scary: On some airlines, the overweight baggage fee costs eight times as much as the standard checked-bag fee! And remember, you pay the overweight fee on top of the checked-bag fee. Did you know your jeans can actually weigh a pound or two? Pack the khakis, wear the Levis and weigh your bag at home on a scale you trust to be sure you don't go over the limit. As I've been saying, don't get ripped off.

The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.

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