Just before Christmas 2008, the lowest round-trip airfare between New York and Los Angeles leaving just before the holiday and returning the Sunday after was about $900 round-trip, including taxes. But as this Dec. 11, 2008 NPR radio interview revealed, had you waited until a couple of weeks before the holiday, the same route would have cost just $391 round-trip (on nonstop flights no less).
Will this year be a repeat of sky-high peak holiday airfares? It's impossible -- and too early -- to tell. But if past years are any indications, it's certainly a possibility.
One thing is for certain: thanks to airline consolidation and the elimination of thousands of seats, current airfares are higher on average than they were last year. But the keyword is "current."
Just how bad are peak holiday airfares?
Some flights are just through the roof right now, and I cannot imagine anyone paying them.
Here are some round-trip examples leaving Nov. 24 returning Nov. 27 (in other words, peak Thanksgiving travel), including taxes. Prices were researched on Oct. 25, 2011.
- New York-Charleston, SC: $960
- Chicago-Los Angeles: much more reasonable at $363
- Los Angeles-Vegas: relatively cheap at $182 on Spirit Airlines; not so cheap at $772 on United!
- Boston-Dallas: almost $700, even on connecting flights
- Miami-Philadelphia: $363 on American but $473 on US Airways -- proof that all airlines are not selling at the same price.
So what to do? Here are some tips to navigate exorbitant holiday fares.
1. Fly on Thanksgiving Day, and return the Friday or Saturday after the holiday.
That outrageous $960 New York-Charleston fare leaving the day before Thanksgiving and returning the Sunday after suddenly becomes $482 if you depart on Thanksgiving Day at 6:30am (arriving in plenty of time for turkey) and returning the Saturday after the holiday. That's a 50% savings.
2. Shop alternate airports.
Although the peak Thanksgiving (Nov. 24-27) airfare currently from Nashville to New York isn't a screaming bargain at $403 round-trip, it's a lot better than the fare from Chattanooga ($549). Did you know that just a two-hour drive separates the two airports? If there are four of you flying, that's almost $600 in savings.
And it's still possible that these Thanksgiving fares (and peak Christmas fares) will go down.
3. Sign up for airfare alerts.
A lot of airfare pundits are warning you to "buy now or cry later." I'm not so sure. True, if you're flying no matter what the cost, you don't want to wait if you're hoping to book your ideal flight times, leave from your preferred departure airport, and get your favorite (i.e., no middle) seats.
However, perhaps a better piece of advice -- especially if you're not going fly if the fare is too high -- is to shop around. Maybe 2011 will be a replay of 2008. If the airlines have priced too high, many people will not travel. And thus the airlines might blink. So consumers should not just search once, get discouraged, and fail to recheck closer to the holiday.
Do your homework, keep looking, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and blogger whose website, www.airfarewatchdog.com, tracks unadvertised airfare wars and fare sales, including the most helpful and always updated Top 50 Airfares.
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