Sept. 15, 2011— -- It's 100 degrees here in Dallas as I write this, but I'm getting into the Christmas spirit anyway. I have to, since that's all anyone asks me about; specifically, they want to know if it's possible to find cheap flights for the holidays. I tell them yes.
It might take some luck. And you may have to settle for "decent" airfares rather than cheap ones (or what I call the best of some not-so-hot deals) but I can help you with this battle.
And it is a battle; the airlines will fight you. Holidays are big cash cows for them, the one bright light in a slow winter travel season. So they pile it on, especially at Thanksgiving, knowing you'll be on the carving board instead of the turkey if you fail to show up at grandma's table.
Don't disappoint her! Get on your computer now. It worked for me; I got a deal on Thanksgiving tickets and you can too if follow these tips.
Start shopping now; holiday airfare is likely not going to drop this year, so procrastinators will not be rewarded with low ticket prices at the very last minute.
How do I know?
Because of all the airfare hikes we've seen this year, including a small one just last week for business travelers. Airlines do not do such things if they think potential passengers are on the fence about travel. Couple that with airline execs noting at a recent investor conference that bookings are strong for the next few months and you have a recipe for higher holiday ticket prices.
Puzzlingly, this "strength" defies the daily headlines on the sour state of the economy.
Our everyday advice for cheap airfare is to shop Tuesdays at 3 p.m. for domestic tickets so you can take advantage of the most sales and subsequent competitive price-matching, but this doesn't always hold true for holidays because most sales black out these dates. But take a look anyway.
It's typically better to shop midweek than on a weekend, as airlines pull discounted fares before the weekend.
Tip: It helps to have a magic number in mind. This year, the definition of a holiday deal is $300 or less for a round-trip airline ticket (including taxes and fees) -- subtract $100 for short trips and add $150 for coast-to-coast trips. Don't panic if you don't see anything like that. As I said, the holidays are the worst times for airfare, but try to get as close to that figure as you can.
And I'll say it again: Shop now. The longer you wait, the higher the prices.
You've heard me say "be flexible" again and again, and the reason is, it works. Sometimes, moving your travel itinerary around by a single day or two can save real money.
Important dates to keep in mind: For Thanksgiving travel, higher airfare prices usually kick in the Tuesday before and drop again by the Tuesday after. For Christmas, airfares typically rise starting Dec. 16 and drop on Jan. 1. It might be hard to work your entire trip outside that high-priced bubble, but try moving a departure or return date to a cheaper period and you'll still see some savings.
Don't Be in Such a Hurry
Yes, non-stop flights are delightful, but you often pay a premium for such convenience. Always compare the cost of connecting flights with non-stops; you could save hundreds depending on your route.
Tip: Avoid delays by avoiding connections in winter weather cities; compare the annual snow levels between O'Hare and Phoenix's Sky Harbor and you'll see what I mean.
By the way, connecting flights may not be worth the frayed nerves if traveling with young children, and never allow a child fly alone on anything but a direct flight.
Create an Airport and Strategy
For small town flyers: Avoid the temptation to fly out of your local airport; better to drive to the nearest metropolis. One of my colleagues, then living in Idaho Falls, Idaho, used to routinely make the 200 mile trip to Salt Lake City to save $200 or so on flights back east.
Fly on the Cheapest Day of the Holiday Season
Four little words that will save you plenty: Fly on the holiday -- yes, Thanksgiving day (Nov. 24) and Christmas day (Dec. 25). Prices drop because no one wants to fly then, but if you can grab an early plane, you won't miss much of the festivities and you'll zip through security in that empty airport. Compare prices on holidays with airfares of just a day or two earlier and you may be persuaded.
Skimp on Other Travel Costs
Wear that heavy reindeer sweater to make room in that carryon you'll use to save the $50 bag fee. Or fly JetBlue or Southwest for the free bags. And this year, search out public transportation options to get you to and from the airport; you'll save on parking costs and taxis.
Tip: Holidays are no time for experimentation; if you've never ridden an airport bus before, do a test run before Thanksgiving or grill a friend who uses them routinely. If you miss your holiday flight, there may be no empty seats on later planes.
And once again, do not procrastinate. Hey, it may be hot outside but leave that mai-tai poolside while you hit an airfare search site. Thanksgiving and Christmas will be here before you know it and there's no sense spending all your money on airfare when you haven't even hit the mall yet.