It's never too early to be thinking of flying home for the holidays.
Thanks to the recession, airfares are at record lows. Both business and leisure travelers are staying home, leaving desperate airlines to cut fares in an effort to fill seats.
Except during the holidays, particularly Christmas.
Americans are still heading home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and those same cash strapped airlines are squeezing them for every possible dollar.
The holiday rate hikes have caused sticker shock for consumers expecting cheap fares, and the price hikes have stretched across the country.
From March through June, the average airfare for a domestic flight, including both round-trip and one-way fares for which no return flight was purchased, was $301, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That's down a whopping 13 percent from the same time last year, the largest decline ever recorded by the government, putting airfare prices back to where they were in 1998.
To counter those price drops, the airlines have grounded planes, reducing the number of available seats between destinations. So there are now less seats available to fly to visit family for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the airlines charge an even-higher premium for those remaining seats.
"It is the perfect storm," said Brian Clark, the general manager of airfare search site Fly.com. "When demand surges on a low, fixed number of available seats, fares jump.
In fact the airlines recently added into their ticket prices an across-the-board $10 surcharge, each way, for travel during 13 days across the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's holidays. That's on top of already-inflated ticket prices.
"You have to act like a Boy Scout when it comes to holiday travel -- be prepared for the worst and have a wry smile ready when you see the airport in your rear view mirror," said Rick Seaney, CEO of flight search site FareCompare.com and an ABC News weekly columnist.
Holiday Airfares Climbed this Fall
Plenty of airlines have advertised some great sales recently. Southwest Airlines just offered a number of $25 fares for select flights, a promotion matched by American Airlines. But those great deals are for travel in early December and January.
Seaney notes that there have been five airfare hikes since the end of the government's reporting period in June. For the holidays themselves, Seaney said prices are only about 6 percent cheaper right now than last year less than half the drop seen for all seats. And with the added increase in checked-baggage fees, he said "it is almost a wash."
"We are likely to see 100-percent full planes this holiday," Seaney said. "There is no incentive to discount and every incentive to up charge."
The rising prices have really punished procrastinators, as those who waited to buy Thanksgiving tickets were severely penalized.
New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles Fares Inflated
A round-trip ticket from Boston to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, Fla., departing Nov. 25, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, returning Sunday, Nov. 29, would have cost an average of $229 if bought the week of Sept. 7, according to Fly.com.
The price for that same ticket climbed the next week to $295 and then to a whopping $498 by the week of Sept. 21. The following week the fare jumped again to an average of $639. Prices stayed in that range for four more weeks before falling slightly to $574, more than double the September price.
Fly.com also did comparisons for New York to Miami and Los Angeles to New York for ABC News. The Los Angles trip climbed steadily throughout the two-month period and the New York to Miami trip did drop for three weeks before skyrocketing up. Both itineraries now cost 60 percent higher than they did back in early September. A fourth itinerary for Chicago-Las Vegas rose nearly 90 percent during that period from $299 to $566.
Off-Day Travel Often Cheaper
If Thanksgiving prices are any indication, the to buy for Christmas is now.
"After Thanksgiving, people's attention will turn to Christmas travel, so I suggest that people book before the Thanksgiving holiday to get the best chance at a really good Christmas holiday fare," said Fly.com's Clark. "This holiday season is much different than last year. Travelers are a bit more confident about spending their money, but are still looking for a great deal. As a result, if you see a good price, take it."
If you still haven't bought a Thanksgiving ticket, Clark suggests avoiding the Wednesday departure and Sunday return. People booking tickets for a Tuesday outbound flight and a return on Friday or Saturday, he said, will find prices that are 25 to 50 percent lower than the peak days.
Seaney adds that non-stop flights are garnering a hefty premium. It might be worth looking at making one connection this year. He also advises that first flights out in the morning and flights around lunch and dinner ate typically cheaper. To cut back on checked bag fee, consolidate kids' smaller bags into one larger one, but keep it under the weight limits.
There are still some deals to find, Seaney said, but book no later than Nov. 10.