Holiday airfares: It’s not too early to shop
Christmas in August? OK, it’s too early to string lights, decorate the tree and bake fruitcake. But it’s not too soon to buy holiday air tickets -- or at least start shopping for them.
That’s because, with record fuel costs and the biggest cuts in flight schedules in seven years, fares over Thanksgiving and the Christmas-New Year’s period are heading skyward. Fewer flights mean scarcer seats and higher prices.
The cheapest U.S. airfares for the November and December holidays, when checked Aug. 3, were running 30% or higher, on average, than at the same time last year, said Mike Fridgen, director of product management for Live Search Farecast, which analyzes past patterns to predict fares.
Although airlines are still evaluating demand and may later put some holiday seats on sale, bargain hunters are more likely to lose than win by waiting, several experts said.
“We will see some specials for Christmas and New Year’s,” said Tom Parsons, chief executive of BestFares.com, which tracks travel deals. “But they will be for limited days.”
If you need to travel on specific dates and can find a tolerable fare, buy it now, he and several others suggested. Taking his own advice, Parsons has already booked tickets to Tampa, Fla., for himself and his wife for Christmas.
So far this year, Southwest Airlines has raised fares several times, and so-called legacy carriers -- American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways -- have done so at least 15 times, said Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com, an airfare search service. Seaney expects at least 10 more increases this year.
For holiday travel, “It’s going to be tough out there for people who really need less-expensive tickets,” he said. “It’s about getting a better bad deal.”
Prepare for sticker shock, especially if you’re headed for fun-and-sun spots or flying in or out of small or mid-sized cities, which have borne the brunt of schedule cuts. Even big-city fares may surprise you.
The cheapest round-trip ticket between LAX and New York’s JFK airport was $673 for Nov. 26 to 30 (Wednesday before and Sunday after Thanksgiving) when I checked July 31 on BestFares.com. LAX-Honolulu round trips for Dec. 26 to Jan. 3 started at $1,078. (These fares may no longer be available.)
Hawaii, served by fewer flights since ATA folded and Aloha Airlines stopped passenger service earlier this year, is an especially tough ticket. If you can find a round-trip fare for less than $1,000 over Christmas-New Year’s, book it, Parsons said.
In fact, the whole airline network is shrinking.
Airlines will operate 7.5% fewer domestic flights at Thanksgiving and 5.7% fewer at Christmas-New Year’s than they did last year, according to eSkyGuide.com, a global flight directory. For LAX, the drop is more than 16% for both holiday periods, the company reported.
But don’t despair. Not every airfare has zoomed, and, by being flexible, you can often pare down the price. Here are some strategies:
Shift travel dates: Even small changes bring big payoffs. A flier who balked at the $673 LAX-JFK fare quoted above would have paid half as much by leaving on Thanksgiving and returning the next Tuesday. Veteran travelers save by flying on the holiday itself, and they avoid crowds too.
Use alternative airports: I always check this option. The Newark, N.J., airport, for instance, offers good public transit into Manhattan and sometimes lower fares than JFK. Flying into Providence, R.I., instead of Boston, about 50 miles away, can save $100 or more on airfare.
Watch the market: Bucking the national trend, Denver-LAX fares, priced at the end of July, started at 39% less than they did at the same time last year, said Bob Harrell of Harrell Associates, a New York-based travel and aviation consulting firm.
The likely reason, experts said, is that Southwest Airlines, which often offers cheaper fares, began LAX-Denver nonstop service in May, driving prices down. Take advantage of this so-called Southwest effect whenever possible.
Consider connecting flights: Although going nonstop is less stressful and reduces chances of being bumped or losing luggage, it can cost hundreds more than taking a one-stop flight, Seaney said.
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