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If holiday airfares seem higher this year than last, you're not imagining things. According to Priceline's Brian Ek, airline tickets over the Thanksgiving season cost $20-60 more than they did in 2005, and Christmas tickets will run you $50-100 more. The reason: Airlines have cut flights way back over the past year, filling planes and raising fares. That tactic hurts the most on peak flight days. There are ways to get the lowest possible fares, though, and ways to make the best of a miserable peak-day flight.

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. They got back to us with this list of tips for making holiday travel just a little less painful:

  • For Thanksgiving, Priceline says to try departing Saturday Nov. 18, Monday the 20th and returning Friday Nov. 24 or Tuesday Nov. 28. Hotwire suggests making a week of it and heading out Nov. 18 or 19 if you can.
  • For Christmas, Princeline suggests departing on Thursday the 21st and coming back on the 26th, 27th, 29th or 30th; leaving Saturday the 23rd and coming back Wednesday the 27th; or leaving Christmas Eve (that's what I'm doing) and coming back on December 27th or 29th.
  • 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.
  • Buy now. Airfares aren't going to get any lower. "Waiting until the last minute this year is going to be a pretty poor bet," Ek said. "There simply aren't as many seats this year, and they're filling fast. If you're looking for Thanksgiving you should be booking right now. Lock in not just your price, but lock in your seat now," he said.
  • If you need to wait, try opaque airfares. While inventory for Priceline's "name your own price" service dropped sharply from 2000-2003, the number of those super-cheap tickets has begun to creep back up, Ek says. Opaque airfares 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.
  • Holidays can mean hotel discounts. Business travel pretty much stops over family-oriented holidays and during the week between Christmas and New Year's. You can take advantage of that to snag low rates on hotels, according to Hotwire.

On this calendar we built from Priceline 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
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30

December

S
M
T
W
T
F
S
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30

I'm with you all on this one: I'm flying to visit my in-laws in Tucson for Christmas. But by booking early, traveling on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and staying there for a few days, I snagged a very low air fare. You can too.

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. 21-22, Nov. 26, Dec. 22, Dec. 23 or Dec. 26. 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. That point is especially important this year, when the flights that actually leave airports will almost certainly be fully booked. Then tell them that you'd like to be on the bump list.

If you need to wait until the last minute to make your bookings, consider a last-minute specialty discounter like Site59 or using Priceline or Hotwire's opaque-fare services, which make you give up some control over your flight times in exchange for lower fares. But sometimes over the holidays, it's better to get there late than not to get there at all.

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