As the 2010 holiday travel season comes into view, we can all rely on the airlines to try to claim every possible penny of our holiday travel expenditures.
Luckily, after months of fluctuating prices and shrinking capacity, on the whole the airlines have found somewhat of a sweet spot of late, and are flying full planes and offering fairly stable pricing. The upside of this for travelers is that it is now a whole lot easier to create and stick to a travel budget; the downside is that there are very fewer loss leader and "fire sale" fare sales these days, and this will be especially true this holiday season.
Personally, I don't necessarily miss rock-bottom fares; back in the days when you would see a $130 fare one day, only to have it jump to $1,300 the next day, I regularly called in this column for a more sensible and predictable fare structure — and now we have it, or something like it.Video: When should you book holiday travel? (on this page)
Does that make pricing any more predictable? Unfortunately not, at least if you are relying on surveys and experts to read the future: Travelocity has fares up by 10 percent; Bing has them down by a couple percent at Thanksgiving and up by a couple percent at Christmas/New Year's; Rick Seaney at FareCompare.com pegs everything up by 17 percent — and some admit they just don't know.
One thing we do know:
Time is running out
Numerous historical surveys show that early to mid October is the best time to book your holiday travel, noting that in every year since 2006, prices have come down for this relatively brief window before starting to climb again into the peak holiday travel season. This is not a hard and fast rule, but if you see something you like, you may want to book it, as things will not likely get better than they are right now.
Beware the fees
We have already covered the topic of airline surcharges quite a bit, but at this time of year, when folks who travel less frequently than our regular readers are taking to the air, it is worth repeating. In short you will likely be charged for almost everything you do from the moment you sit down at your computer to search for a fare until you get home — online booking fees, fees to speak to someone on the phone, fees to use your miles or points, fees to pick your seat, fees for every checked bag, fees for headphones, fees for food, even fees for carry-on bags.
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How bad is it? I recently saw a $9 one-way fare on Spirit Airlines, which charges for absolutely everything (including your carry-on bag), and for kicks and giggles priced out a complete roundtrip itinerary from Atlantic City to Boston. By the time I was finished adding up all the surcharges (based on one carry-on and one checked bag, which is pretty typical of most holiday travelers), the price had surged to $156 roundtrip. This is still a pretty good fare, but US Airways was offering $140 roundtrips just 40 miles away in Philadelphia, which after the checked bag surcharge of $25/bag each way was $190.
So in the end the $18 roundtrip fare ended up costing only $50 less than the $140 roundtrip fare. As I said above: Beware the fees.
For more on this topic, see Seven smart ways to bypass baggage fees.
Peak Days: Thanksgiving
Over the past few years, Thanksgiving travelers in particular have modified their travel habits and booked away from the traditional horror-show Thanksgiving travel days — Wednesday outbound and Sunday return — such that these are no longer the meanest, nastiest travel days of the year. Well, Wednesday isn't, at least; numerous eyewitness reports from friends and readers the past few years have told of very manageable airport crowds on Wednesday the past few years — one frequent traveler said it was the least crowded he had ever seen his very busy home airport.
Since everyone has to get back to school and work on Monday morning, and many try to milk every last hour of the long weekend, there is probably no getting away from crowds on the Sunday return date.
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving has become a much more popular date of late, and the airlines have noticed; it is now the priciest departure date, according to Travelocity's Thanksgiving Travel Report (see our analysis here). By booking away from Tuesday and Sunday, you can save yourself up to $170 on average. The least expensive days? Depart on Thanksgiving Day, and return on the following Tuesday.
Expert tip: The fact that the airlines charge the most on what they expect to be the peak travel days will drive some folks away from those days — and that is without even considering the "holiday surcharges" most airlines are firing up again this year in the $10 - $30 extra range on peak travel days (use this great chartto see 2010 holiday surcharges by airline and date). As we get closer to Thanksgiving, you will almost inevitably see fares start to climb on almost all of these dates as planes get fuller and the airlines adjust fares. If you see a great deal now, grab it before other folks start booking flights and the airlines shift their pricing to match booking trends.Video: Travel deals to get you home for the holidays (on this page)
Peak days: Christmas and New Year's
Both Christmas and New Year's fall on Saturdays this year, which is a boon to employers who save some holiday off-days, but the bane of a swarm of holiday travelers hoping to bust home on Sunday. When Christmas and New Year's fall mid-week, folks tend to travel a bit more willy-nilly, some the week before, some on the preceding weekend, some at the last minute, etc. A Saturday holiday will create a huge rush mid-week before both holidays, both coming and going; it could be a rough one.
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Studies of holiday travel patterns have indicated that a mid-week Christmas and New Year's offer a 16- to 19-day window for travel, but a Saturday holiday shortens that span to 14 days. And everyone will be mightily incentivized to use that entire stretch, which will create some real logjams at either end of that period, particularly at the end.
The peak holiday season will officially start for trips that begin on December 17 and later, and end more or less on January 3. The most popular Christmas travel dates will inevitably be Thursday, December 23 and Sunday, December 26; if you can avoid those dates, you will save yourself irritation and money as well.
Finally, if there is one travel day you avoid, make it Sunday, January 2. The entire country is going to be due back at work on January 3, and everyone will be scrambling home, whether by plane, train, automobile, magic carpet, you name it.
Expert tip: If you can travel on Christmas Day or New Year's Day proper, you will almost always have clear sailing and easy going. It's not for everyone, and certainly not for folks recovering from holiday revelry, but it has its charms, with empty airports and empty roads.
Expert tips: how to find the best fares
Almost every booking engine of any usefulness offers a "flexible dates" function that will show you fares on alternate dates — most return a calendar showing prices by date, on which you can click for more information.
Also, many search engines allow you to search on a destination city, rather than a specific airport, which will return prices for all nearby airports. You can even combine the two — flexible dates and city search — for a very broad look at your options.
Finally, for families traveling together, Tom Parsons of Bestfares.com recommends that you search first for a single seat, as when searching for multiple seats, most booking engines show the fare of the highest priced ticket — and in most cases charge you that price for all the tickets you purchase. Search instead on a single seat, which will tell you the lowest available price on that flight, and you can make a better informed purchase.
After avoiding it for over a decade, it looks like our family will be traveling on a couple holiday weekends this year; see you at the airport! Hopefully not on the third day of January