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Holiday fares are even lower than last year, but they may rise from here on out, according to fare experts at Priceline (www.priceline.com) and Bing Travel (www.bing.com/travel). The total gutting of the American economy encouraged lower airfares for those who could still afford to fly home for the holidays. But as those much-spoken-about "green shoots" come up in the U.S. economy, holiday airfares may rise with them.

Last year, "the airlines ran fare sales right into the holidays to spur demand. This year, we're not likely to see a repeat. In fact, prices may go up, since seat capacity is even lower this year compared to last year," Priceline's Brian Ek said in a recent press release.

Domestic Thanksgiving fares are averaging around $340, according to Bing, and Priceline finds much lower fares for many specific routes over the holiday period. Christmas fares are higher, averaging $374 over the last ten days of December on Bing Travel. Whether that's affordable depends on whether you've been seeing green shoots in your own personal gross domestic product.

But of course, you can always get the best fares by flying on the best days. As we do every year, we asked Priceline, Bing Travel (formerly Farecast), and Hotwire (www.hotwire.com) which days are the best to fly over the holiday period. (They have banks of computers that do nothing but crunch air fares.) Our exclusive calendar below comes from mixing the views of all three services, giving you the most comprehensive look at low holiday fares on the Web.

Priceline and Bing Travel also suggested some tips for making holiday travel just a little less painful:

  • Avoid toxic date combinations. Flying on one high-fare day is bad. Flying on two can be positively toxic. Flying out for Thanksgiving on Wednesday and back on Sunday gives an average fare of $375, according to Bing. But move only your return date one day up to Monday, and your fare just dropped by $35.
  • Look at all the airports near your destination. Think of flying into Newark instead of LaGuardia, or Fort Lauderdale instead of West Palm Beach. Airports that have plenty of low-fare airlines flying into them typically have the most competitive fares.
  • Fly first thing in the morning. Yes, I can hear you grumbling. But flights before 7am are typically cheaper. Late night flights are cheaper too, but you put yourself at more of a risk of airline delays if you fly in the evening.
  • Check out more calendars. Our calendar is cool, but Priceline and Farecast both have features we don't. Priceline's new Inside Track section at http://travela.priceline.com/insideTrack/flights lets you check comparative airfares across a grid of dates for your specific destinations and track price trends over time. Bing Travel gives you tips on whether to buy now, or wait a little while to potentially get lower fares.
  • Try opaque airfares. Opaque airfares from services like Priceline's "Name Your Own Price" service offer the best discounts at the last minute, often reducing prices to what you would have paid a month in advance. So don't wait in hopes of grabbing an opaque bargain, but use opaque services if you're panicking at the last minute.

For our exclusive calendar, we combined Priceline, Hotwire and Bing Travel data. Green days are the best days to fly. Yellow days are middling, and red days will have the absolute worst fares.

November

Su
M
T
W
T
F
Sa
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28

December/January

Su
M
T
W
Th
F
Sa
29
30
1
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
30
31
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9

So You're Stuck -- Now What?

Remember this chart applies to domestic flights only. You can still find bargains over Thanksgiving for flying to Europe (where Thanksgiving isn't celebrated), for instance.

But if you're stuck traveling on a high-traffic day, remember the usual mantras: arrive early at the airport and maintain patience, patience, patience. If you have a little flexibility, get bumped, especially if you're flying on Nov. 24-25 or Dec. 26-27. Airlines have really reduced capacity this year, and if they're caught off guard by heavy demand, there may be a lot of overbooking. By agreeing to arrive a little later than planned, 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. Even if you don't get bumped, you may get a drink voucher or such for volunteering. That happens to me at least once a year.