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Q: Help! I've been searching for affordable plane tickets for my family of four so that we can visit my parents in Boston for Thanksgiving. I've been shocked at how much it is going to cost us. We are on a budget, and I need to find the cheapest flights possible. The airfares seem to increase by the hour! How can I know if I am getting a good deal? Please give me some advice. --Rosalee from Cincinnati, OH

A: It's that crazy time of year again. Overcrowded airports, oversold flights, and not a bargain to be found. Well, that's not quite true. When it comes to flying during the holidays, getting a good price isn't so much about saving big as it is about not paying more than you have to. In other words, don't insist on a big discount; think "best available price." Here are four steps to ensure that you snag the lowest airfare you can:

Step 1: Start now. Never mind that Halloween is still weeks away; it's not too early to start researching airfares for Thanksgiving and Christmas. There's always high demand for air tickets during holiday periods, and airlines are unlikely to offer fantastic last-minute sales for holiday travel. It's important for families to book early so you can be sure to find enough seats for your whole family on the same flight.

Plan to book your tickets at least six weeks before your travel dates. In general, try to book by early October for a Thanksgiving trip; book in early November for travel over the Christmas week.

Step 2: Be flexible with dates. Realize that almost everyone is locked into the same schedule during holiday breaks. Unsurprisingly, most folks who book a Thanksgiving getaway want to fly out on Wednesday evening and fly back home on Sunday. Consequently, demand is higher and so you can expect airfares will also be higher on those days. Using Kayak (www.kayak.com) to do a quick price check on round-trip flights between Cincinnati and Boston over Thanksgiving, it looks like (as of now) a round-trip ticket flying Wednesday and Sunday would cost about $521. By shifting one day later, flying Thursday and Monday, a round-trip ticket would cost just $354. That's a difference of $167 per ticket, or $668 for four tickets for your whole family.

Step 3: Buy directly from the airlines. Do your comparison shopping using metasearch sites, but always book your tickets directly from the airline. You'll see why in the next bullet.

Step 4: Hedge your bets. Who cares if an airfare goes up after you buy a ticket? But lots of people stress about the fare going down after they buy. In fact, there is no need for any of us to sweat it. If your airfare drops after you book your ticket, most airlines will refund the difference -- minus a rebooking fee -- in the form of a voucher. There are two conditions: You have to ask for it, and you must have bought your ticket directly from the airline. (Note: Two airlines that don't charge rebooking fees are JetBlue and Alaska Airlines.)

But honestly, tracking an airfare is one gigantic pain in the neck. So let the free site Yapta (www.yapta.com) do it for you instead. Using your flight confirmation number, Yapta will track the price of your ticket and factor in the airline's rebooking fees (typically $75 to $150). If the difference in price is more than the rebooking fee, Yapta will send you an e-mail (or a Twitter alert, if you prefer) notifying you of the lower fare. Yapta estimates that about 14% of passengers qualify for refunds. If you're among them, make sure you claim your refund.

With a bit of perseverance and a few smart tactics, you should be able to land a decent fare. Good luck!

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