Cheat sheet for holiday airfare deals

Despite headlines to the contrary, savvy shoppers can still find bargains, experts say.

Let’s go: Travelers walk the terminal at Cleveland Hopkins Airport. Industry-watchers expect bargain fares to keep coming.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Average airfares have been rising lately, but that doesn't mean would-be fliers should rush to lock in their tickets whatever the price.

That's the advice of travel experts as another holiday flying season ramps up.

Yes, it's time to jump at a good price, especially if your trip is a must-do and is timed right around a holiday. But fare trackers say airlines are still waging price battles to get customers on board.

"I really advise people to not give up hope. Check every day because fares really do fluctuate," says George Hobica, who heads Some fares may keep rising, but he also says fewer Americans are expected to travel this holiday season and "a lot of them are going to be going in their cars."

The evidence of upward pressure on ticket prices is hard to miss. "Act fast" and "Fares rising" are the urgent headlines accompanying price quotes on the travel section of the website Fares rose 8 percent in the three-month period starting in July, according to the US consumer price index.

What's pushing prices up? Partly it's improvement in the economy – and a related uptick in fuel prices. Airlines have also cut routes to keep planes fuller. The industry's so-far-elusive quest for profits includes not just rising fares but also fees on everything from checked bags to beverages.

But demand for air travel, which fell sharply during the recession, remains far below levels seen prior to 2001. Airlines still face fierce competition for price-sensitive consumers. That's why experts caution against assuming that fare jumps are here to stay, or that bargains will cease.

"This year has been one wild and crazy year," says Tom Parsons, chief executive of travel website Aside from the weeks that include Christmas and New Year's Day, "there are still a lot of days the airlines are worried about.... They're going to have to do something to keep those planes full."

The recent jump in fares is more modest than the steep plunge in their cost last year, as the recession deepened and a spike in oil prices ended. Average fares in September were still down by more than 11 percent from a year earlier. Fares today aren't too different from prices in 2006 or the summer of 2000, price data show.

Here's the advice Mr. Parsons and others offer for holiday fliers:

•Tuesday is a key day to shop. Parsons says airlines often roll out their bargains that morning each week, with potential bargains expanding throughout the day as other carriers follow suit. The deals can last for a couple of days after that.

•If you travel for the Christmas holiday, you might get a better price by returning before New Year's Day.

•Compare airfares with the costs of traveling by land, Mr. Hobica says. Savings from traveling by car can be substantial if the flight is to somewhere within a day's drive (no stopover at a hotel required), and if more than one family member needs a ticket. An easy way to check costs for a trip is the online "fuel cost calculator" from AAA.

•Check prices by searching for just one ticket, even if you want to buy four. That's because of the patchwork of prices offered on a given airplane. You might find you can buy three seats at a lower price and pay a bit more for a fourth one. (Otherwise, you might end up paying the higher price for all four tickets.)

•The more you use the Internet, the more deals you'll find. Some airlines such as JetBlue offer alerts via Twitter. Others use "promo code" bargains to lure savvy customers. Many travel websites will track prices on a desired trip for you and send an e-mail if a deal appears.

•Scan more than one website, and be ready to pounce. You'll have a better chance of getting the best deal if you don't need to confer with a spouse when it shows up. In addition to airline sites, try sites like Expedia, Kayak, Travelzoo, Priceline, and Cheapseats.

•If you need a hotel as well as an airline ticket, look on Bestfares, Cheapseats, or other sites that offer package deals.

•Flexibility on travel dates is rewarded. Many websites allow you to search within a range of days. If you gravitate toward a better price on a different date, also check the prices that day at nearby airports.

•If you like racking up travel rewards on credit-card purchases, American Express offers a new "Premier Rewards Gold Card" that lets you use points at 17 airlines, or for gas or groceries.

•If you want to go to Florida soon, consider driving a rental car there and flying home. Florida needs rental cars for its busy season, so you'll probably pay less than if you flew both ways and rented a car while there.

Finally, once you buy a ticket, keep an eye out for schedule changes. It's been happening more often this year, and the last thing you want is to be stuck in an airport at holiday time because of outdated information.

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