The Grandma Effect and Holiday Airfare

PHOTO: Crowded denver airportGeorge Rose/Getty Images
According to the lobbying group Airlines for American, 25 million passengers will jam the nation's airports in late November.

Why are your holiday plane tickets so expensive? There are a lot of factors at work but one of the most important is what I call the "Grandma Effect."

This not-so-scientific theory of mine is based on personal knowledge of grandmothers. Whether yours is of the snowy-haired, pink-cheeked pie-baking variety or the hard-charging, stiletto-heeled CEO type (or possibly somewhere in between), it comes down to the same thing: When grandma says "Come for Thanksgiving," boy, oh boy you'd better show up.

Economists have a duller moniker like, "demand outpacing supply," but whatever you call it, it translates into higher prices for your plane ticket. But I've got some tips at the end that'll help ease the pain.

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If only we could hop in that sleigh and go over the river and through the woods but today's families are spread out so flying is a big part of staying in touch. And believe me, airlines know when we want to stay in touch: Holidays, particularly Thanksgiving, are their equivalent of winning the lottery.

Consider this: According to the lobbying group Airlines for American, 25 million passengers will jam the nation's airports in late November. The good news is you might not notice because this represents only a 1.5 percent increase over last year but that's still an extra 31,000 travelers a day so don't get too comfortable.

Oh, the money we'll spend. A new survey refers to Thanksgiving and Christmas flights as "obligatory holiday travel" (which sounds suspiciously like the Grandma Effect to me); it claims we will spend billions getting to and from our holiday destinations, an estimated $14 billion for Thanksgiving and $58 billion for Christmas travel, but this includes hotels and rental cars.

So we've got high demand, the "obligation" to travel or finding ourselves in hot water with Grandma or mom or somebody. Then there's all that capacity cutting at work. Over the years, airlines have quite literally gotten passenger numbers down to a science, allowing them to cut seats on planes and downsize aircraft accordingly in an ongoing effort to have every plane filled to 100 percent capacity.

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This is why you no longer see the once popular last-minute holiday deals that were the saving of many a procrastinator. With hardly any empty seats the airlines don't have to do that anymore.

The icing on the cake: The dead zone sandwich. Let me explain: Holiday travel is expensive, absolutely, but any airfare looks expensive when sandwiched between two major dead zones and that's what we have here. Where to find them?

1.) The first couple of weeks in Dec.

2.) The latter part of Jan. and early Feb.

By the way, they're called dead zones because they're cheap and they're cheap because people don't want to fly then; they're either preparing for the big holidays or recovering from them so demand is low. Now that you know about the prices, is there anything you can do about them? Glad you asked.

Tips to Save on Holiday Flights

1. Don't delay: It's a little late for this to work for Thanksgiving but there's still time to get what I always call "the best of the bad deals" for Christmas or New Year's, but only if you start shopping right now.

2. Don't make it too easy: If you can stand a coast-to-coast overnight flight or a flight at dawn or even better, if you can stand to skip the non-stop for a connecting flight, you will probably save some money. Fly in and out of the biggest airport near you too even if it means a longer drive since it can mean bigger savings.

3. Be like the turkey or Santa: Arrive on or depart on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day since these are the cheapest dates of each holiday period. This works for New Year's Day, too.

And remember, all you need for a family gathering is a carry-on bag (it'll save you as much as $50 over a checked piece of luggage). So what if your carry-on is small with no room for shampoo or conditioner. You know Grandma will lend you some.