Thanksgiving Travel: 5 Painful Truths

If Thanksgiving travel is on your mind, you're not the only one. Sometime in the week or two after Labor Day, right around the start of football season, the nation's thoughts turn to turkey. And specifically, how are we all going to get home to enjoy it?

Chances are you've already priced out your trip for the Thanksgiving holiday. And if you haven't, you should. It's time. Though there's always a rogue flight here and there that drops in price, it is far more likely than not that the longer you wait, the more you will pay. Here are five painful truths about Thanksgiving airfare that are best learned early.

There is no such thing as a last-minute deal.

In general, the days of last-minute, rock-bottom fares for flights are long over. And if you're traveling over a peak period, like Thanksgiving, you can forget about it. Airlines have cut back their schedules and downsized aircraft in recent years, because flying half-empty planes around doesn't make a whole lot of financial sense.

Now is the time to book, not just for lower prices but more options. "The shopping window opens this week for early birds, who want to lock in the most convenient trips at what is likely to be the best prices they will see in the run up to Turkey Day," said Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare. If you absolutely have to be at grandma's house on the other side of the country for Thanksgiving dinner, do yourself a favor and book a direct flight now, so you don't find yourself stuck on a two-connection, day-long ordeal later on.

Connecting flights may save you money but cost you time.

Speaking of connecting flights, they're almost always cheaper than direct flights. But what you save in money can cost you a lot of time. And keep in mind that every connecting flight you take is another opportunity for something – delays, cancellations, missing bags – to go wrong.

If you do decide to take a flight that requires a connection, it's wise to not check a bag and to allow at least two hours to make it to the second flight. Why? If the first flight is delayed at all, a tight connection could mean you don't make the second flight. Or, if you're flying through a large airport and arrive at one terminal but leave from another, it could take some time to travel between gates. The point is, if you miss your connecting flight, it's going to be awhile before the airline can find you an empty seat on another flight to your destination. Which brings us to ...

There will not be an empty seat next to you.

Don't plan on spreading your magazines and water on the adjacent seat. Or getting that armrest all to yourself. Why? Because it's Thanksgiving, and planes will be packed. The average "load factor" is more than 80 percent, and much higher during the holidays.

If legroom is an issue or you have multiple people in your party (especially families with kids), it's probably a good idea to book early and get your choice seat assignments. Tips on finding more legroom can be found by clicking here.

The cheapest fares are found on Thanksgiving Day.

You know how you want to be on the couchin your PJs, sipping coffee and watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on Thursday morning? So does everyone else. That's why the airports will be packed on Wednesday night and look like ghost towns on Thursday morning. That's also the reason fares will peak the Tuesday and Wednesday before the holiday and drop on Thanksgiving Day. If your flight is taking you from east to west, you may be able to take advantage of the time change and still get to your destination fairly early on Thanksgiving Day. Or, you could ask grandma to DVR the parade and serve dinner a little later this year.

Alternatively, you could use up those vacation days and leave the Monday before Thanksgiving, Seaney said traveling on this day or the holiday itself will save fliers between 15 and 20 percent.

It's going to cost you more than it did last year.

According to FareCompare, prices for Thanksgiving airfare are slightly higher than they were last year. While the price you pay is closely tied to the distance traveled, expect to pay about $425 on long-haul flights, $300 and up for medium-haul and $120 plus for shorter-haul routes.

The increase, said Seaney, can be attributed to a handful of domestic airfare hikes earlier this year and the airlines assumption that demand will be high over the Thanksgiving holiday.