Fly on the Cheap: Move Thanksgiving to October

There's really only one "must-do" family holiday and it's not Christmas, it's not Mother's Day, and it's not the Fourth of July.

You know what I'm talking about: Thanksgiving.

After all, Grandma has to ooh and ahh over Billy's construction-paper turkey and Aunt Rose has to show off her "secret recipe" marshmallow peas (don't ask). And what Thanksgiving would be complete without fights breaking out over the drumsticks, or watching the traditional spectacle of Uncle Mike over-imbibing? Like it or not, you've got to be there -- because family is family.

But how? Airfare is so expensive these days, and Thanksgiving is one of the most expensive times of the year to fly. Well, I've got a plan. You know that "box" we're always supposed to be thinking outside of? That's what I've been doing, which is why I now respectfully suggest the following:

Thanksgiving in October.

I mean what I say: Let's gather the whole clan together -- a month ahead of time. Sure, it's a break with tradition, but it can work. After all, most of us can spare a couple of vacation days for an October celebration. But the real clincher is the numbers. Take a look at the airfare chart below generated by our labs. Notice that a lot of airlines are having fire sales this fall -- up into early November -- and, after that, they lower the boom.

Drop in Fuel Cost

I can hear you say, "Wait a minute! Fuel costs are down!" And so they are, and logic would dictate that airfare prices should drop as well.

Not going to happen.

You see, the airlines are in "balance-sheet-repair" mode right now. They racked up billions of dollars in losses this year, and getting them to drop prices now would be like trying to wrestle the drumsticks from the tykes at the "kids' table."

Besides, who really wants to travel on Thanksgiving? We all know the Wednesday before and the Sunday after the holiday are the busiest travel days in the nation. And sardines will look like they're living in luxury compared to the rumpled passengers shoehorned into holiday flights. The airlines are, after all, in the midst of the "mother of all seat cuts," with about 170,000 fewer seats available per day by Thanksgiving.

It's kind of like being the fellow who just had to have the original iPhone, and had to have it first. He jumped through hoops (waiting in those incredibly long lines) and then paid a relative fortune for the phone. If only he'd waited or, in the case of our Thanksgiving-goers, moved the celebration to an off-peak time he could have saved a fortune. And Thanksgiving in October could save you one, too.

October Is Out

I also know many families can't or won't do that. So for you traditionalists who must have your Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving Day, well, I've got some money-saving ideas for you, too.

Don't procrastinate. Most travelers wait until three or four weeks before their trip to actually get down to the business of buying a ticket. That would be a very bad move this year. Yes, there will be plenty of planes with plenty of seats on Nov. 1, but the airline bean counters are well aware that everyone will want on those planes three weeks later. And they'll be more than happy to charge you an extra $200 to $300 for the privilege. Bottom line: Shop early.

Gather at the cheapest destination. Here's another reason to start planning now: Figure out which family member's house is the cheapest for most of you to get to. Don't go to Cousin Paula's place in Pocatello, for example, if Aunt Sharon's home in Chicago is available; houses near hubs can be cheaper for most fliers (sorry, Aunt Sharon).

Fly the cheaper travel days. Instead of flying in Wednesday and flying out Sunday, take a few extra days off and fly the Saturday before, or even fly Thanksgiving Day. And when it's time to go home, fly on Saturday or Monday or Tuesday. Easier said than done, I know, but you will save big.

Or you can do what I'm going to do this year. Our whole family is heading to London for Thanksgiving, as a sort of once-in-a-blue-moon treat. The advantage to this is that Thanksgiving is not a holiday in Great Britain, so there won't be any "holiday surcharge" for the tickets (although I hate to admit what London hotel rooms are going for).

Whatever you decide to do, start planning and shopping right now. And, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to start formulating a plan of my own: how to get that drumstick all to myself.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.