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Believe it or not, it's time to book flights for the holidays. Yes, that includes Christmas -- and no, fares aren't going to get any cheaper if you wait.

Every year, we ask discounters Priceline and Hotwire which days are the best to fly over the holiday period, as they have banks of computers that do nothing but crunch air fares. This year, we added a new player, Farecast -- their computers are just as big and powerful as the others. The three number-crunching firms got back to us with this list of tips for making holiday travel just a little less painful:
  • Book now. And make sure to secure a seat assignment when you book. "The market has adjusted to holiday inventories and is booking earlier," says Priceline's Brian Ek. "If you want a seat, you'd better, too."
  • Avoid flying on Nov. 21 and Nov. 25. Farecast says those are two of the most expensive, congested days to fly all year.
  • Want low fares? Consider heading out for Thanksgiving on Nov. 19 and back on the 23rd. For Christmas, think about flying on the morning of Christmas Eve and staying until New Year's Eve.
  • This year Priceline looked at both prices and crowds. Why are crowds an issue? Crowded days mean that when things go wrong -- for instance, with delays or cancellations -- there's less room in the system for error. If you want to avoid crowds, fly on Nov. 19, 23 or 27 or Dec. 19, Dec. 24 or 26.
  • Farecast advises that the two weeks following Thanksgiving are some of the cheapest to fly during the entire year. Hotwire and Priceline agree, to some extent. For flights from Nov. 27 to Dec. 9, expect low fares.
  • If you can't afford to fly during the holidays, Farecast says wait until late January, when you'll see the lowest fares of the entire year for visiting friends and relatives.

You'll have to take advantage of the full arsenal of tools to get low airfares this year, as airfares in general have risen recently. Make sure to check alternate airports that are near your destination. And remember our general tips from air traffic controllers for minimizing delays, many of which also apply to finding the lowest fares. Most importantly -- and we can't emphasize this enough -- fly as early in the day as you can. Think you can make it onto a 5:30 AM flight? Grab it.

Buying now is best, but if your disorganized family forces you to wait until the last minute, try specialty discounter Lastminute.com or the opaque air fare services from Priceline and Hotwire. They won't get you spectacular bargains, and you may have to give up some control over your flight times, but you may be able to pay the same price you would have had you bought in advance.

On this calendar we built from Priceline's, Farecast's and Hotwire's data, green days are the best days to fly. Orange days are middling, and red days will have the absolute worst fares. (But don't despair; there are still ways to make a buck off a red day.)

November

S
M
T
W
T
F
S
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
1

December

S
M
T
W
T
F
S
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
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31

So You're Stuck -- Now What?

If you're stuck traveling on a high-traffic day, remember the usual mantras: arrive early at the airport and maintain patience, patience, patience. Pack for your flight like you'll be stuck in the airport for eight hours, because that just might happen. Winter storms, overcrowded airports and a clogged-up air-traffic control system mean delays are inevitable.

With that in mind, getting bumped is riskier than it used to be, but it's still recommended if you can get a confirmed seat on a replacement flight. Make sure the seat is confirmed: you don't want to get stuck in the airport for several days waiting for the next open flight. By getting bumped, you can reap hundreds of dollars in flight vouchers usable during less-stressful times of the year.

To get yourself bumped, try to bring carry-on bags only (they're less likely to get lost that way) and make sure you're at the gate when the gate agents arrive an hour before your flight. Ask if the flight is full; if it is, find out what their rewards for bumping are. Make sure the vouchers you're getting are unrestricted -- that they're usable as cash on the airline or are usable for a wide range of flights. Some bump vouchers nowadays are almost unusable because they're for a strictly limited set of seats or flights. (If the voucher has blackout dates or capacity controls, stay away.) Make sure they'd be able to get you on a later flight and that you won't be stuck in the airport overnight. Then tell them that you'd like to be on the bump list.

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