Fall is an excellent time to fly. Over the past couple of weeks, I've seen deals on flights to U.S. cities for as little as $49 one-way. If you're interested in Europe, prices to a few select destinations dipped into the $400s, albeit briefly, for the first time in six years, and that's the round-trip fare.
Fall is also a terrible time to fly. That's easily explained, though, in a single word: Thanksgiving.
Knowing when to fly is key, so let me remove some of the mystery from autumn's dual personality and cite specific dates that spell the difference between expensive and cheap.
When Fall Is Cheapest
Why is fall cheap? Easy: Summer vacation is over and the kids are back at school. It's the time of year when airlines struggle to fill planes and the hardest time to do that is during the periods bracketing the Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year's holidays. Welcome to the dead zones.
One of the best dead zones - and I say "best" because dead zones are cheap zones - runs from October through the first couple of weeks in November. Careful, though; when the Thanksgiving rush begins, all bets are off.
Dead zone number two kicks off shortly after Turkey Day which is late this year (Nov. 28) so the dead zone doesn't begin until about Dec. 3 and continues through Dec. 12 to Dec. 15, depending on the airline. If you're interested in a fall getaway, these periods are zoned for savings.
To me, fall is the best time to fly, combining the gorgeous weather and consumer-friendly airfare. Yes, January will probably be a little cheaper (once the New Year's crowds have thinned), but that won't be true about those warm weather destinations in the Caribbean you've been dreaming of since they'll be in demand.
Why Thanksgiving Is Expensive
You don't have to be a brain surgeon (or an airfare expert) to figure this one out. We have to go to grandma's house! Or go to someone's home for this quintessential American holiday. And because we're all flying, the airlines have us right where they want us: Desperate for tickets and willing to pay whatever. But there are some ways to save.
How to Find Thanksgiving Deals
Best thing you can do if at all possible is not to follow the crowd. Most folks will be flying the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (Nov. 27) and the Sunday after (Dec. 1), which means those are the most expensive days to fly. The cheapest? Thanksgiving Day itself, and if you time it right you'll be there in plenty of time for the big bird. My father-in-law always flies on Thanksgiving, not just because fares are more reasonable but because it's a great way to avoid the madness at the airport.
Other less expensive days to fly include early in the week and for return flights, wait until the Tuesday after the holiday, if you can.
Final thought: If you will be traveling at Thanksgiving, start shopping now. If you're simply looking for a nice relaxing fall trip, there's less urgency, but on the other hand, those $400+ deals to Europe don't grow on trees. And don't last for long.