Flying over the holidays is going to cost more this year. And the longer you wait to book, the pricier it's likely to get.
The average domestic airfare for the weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas is $383, 4 percent higher than last year, according to Expedia. As airlines fly fewer routes and planes to cut costs, there are fewer seats available.
Flights are fuller than ever, and airlines can charge more. Airlines have an additional reason to charge families more during the holiday season: there are fewer high-paying business travelers, and airlines need to make up for that loss of revenue.
But fliers can save money by manipulating travel websites, planning itineraries that are a little less convenient and taking advantage of airfare refund policies. A simple but valuable strategy: If you find a good fare, jump on it. The price might drop later on, but not much. Here are seven tips to help you save.
BE FLEXIBLE Adding a couple of days to your trip before or after peak travel days can lower fares significantly. So can flying on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day or early on the morning of New Year's Day. These days tend to be less busy. A flight from Chicago to Seattle, leaving the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and returning Sunday, cost a whopping $420 on a recent search. A budget-conscious traveler could leave on the morning of Thanksgiving, return the following Monday and cut the airfare to $327. Most travel websites have search options that make it easy to find the cheapest days to travel.
LOOK FOR CONNECTING FLIGHTS Flying nonstop is ideal, but that convenience isn't free. Booking an itinerary that includes one stop could save you $100 round-trip. Just make sure to leave plenty of time to connect so that even if your first flight is late, you don't miss the second leg. And be careful booking an itinerary that includes a stop in a cold-weather city. Last year, a Christmas weekend snowstorm on the East Coast caused more than 10,000 flight cancelations, stranding passengers for days.
FLY, THEN DRIVE Some airlines have a virtual monopoly at certain airports, allowing them to charge more. One of America's most expensive airports is Cincinnati, which is dominated by Delta. To save money, many fliers instead choose airports in Dayton, Ohio, Louisville, Ky., or Indianapolis. Other airports are expensive to fly in and out of because they lack a low-cost carrier to keep prices in check or because business travelers are the primary customers. Most search sites can check fares at airports 50, 75 or even 100 miles from your destination. The savings are potentially big enough to make the car rental and extra travel time worth your while.
PICK TWO DIFFERENT AIRLINES Most airlines now sell one-way flights at reasonable prices. One airline might be cheaper for the outbound flight and another for the return. You could even arrive at one airport and depart from another. Many sites automatically display these multi-carrier itineraries; others require separate searches.
CONSIDER THE 24-HOUR RULE Most big airlines allow passengers to cancel and rebook tickets purchased through their websites within 24 hours without penalty. After you book, check the next morning and see whether the price fell. Alaska, Continental, Delta, Southwest, United, US Airways and Virgin America all allow this.
SEARCH MULTIPLE SITES The cheapest flight doesn't always show up on every website. Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity are the biggest online ticket-sellers. Sometimes better deals can be found on sites such as Kayak, Hipmunk, AirfareWatchdog, Yapta, FareCompare, CheapOair, Mobissimo and Fly.com. Some airlines, like Southwest, aren't included on many of these sites. Most airport websites list the airlines serving them. Look there to make sure you aren't missing a carrier.
SAVE ON HOTEL ROOMS, CAR RENTALS Hotel and car-rental reservations are typically refundable. Check frequently and rebook if prices have fallen. Alternatively, if you're willing to commit, many hotels offer discounts for non-refundable bookings. Hotels and car-rental companies frequently offer discounts to members of AAA and AARP and to government workers. They also have special rates for employees of certain companies. It never hurts to ask. Priceline and Hotwire offer discounts but don't disclose the hotel name until a non-refundable booking is made. BiddingForTravel.com and BetterBidding.com offer first-timers advice and show recently-accepted bids.