Spending the holidays with loved ones is a time-honored tradition, but it's become much harder in recent years to get to Grandma's house without going broke. The beleaguered airline industry has survived a string of bankruptcies and rising fuel costs by finding new and terrible ways of charging passengers more for less. That means families need a brand new set of strategies to fly affordably this holiday season.
Book now. Today there are only five major airlines left standing (American, Delta, United, Southwest, and US Airways) compared with ten a decade ago. There are also fewer routes, which mean fewer available seats, which mean higher airfares.
So how does that affect you? During holiday periods, when demand is at its peak, you are particularly unlikely to find a better fare by waiting it out. In fact, you run the risk of paying much more for one of the few remaining seats or not landing any seat at all.
Compare more than fares. Smart shopping is no longer as simple as comparing airfares. Since 2008, airlines have steadily introduced new fees for amenities and services that used to be free, and these additional charges can significantly jack up your total spend. Families are hit disproportionately hard by ancillary fees, since they are buying multiple tickets and consequently getting zapped over and over with the same fee.
It's important to know that the amount that different airlines charge for various fees can vary greatly. If you're traveling on a route served by multiple airlines, consult FareCompare's domestic airline fee chart and factor extra fees into your comparison shopping.
Be an artful fee dodger. Will you be checking any baggage? Last year, airlines made $2.7 billion in baggage fees alone. Most major airlines now charge between $20 and $25 for your first checked bag. For a typical family of four checking four bags, fees can add up to $200 to the cost of a round trip. But consider this: JetBlue doesn't charge anything for a first checked bag, and Southwest Airlines lets each passenger check two bags for free.
Traveling with young kids? Lean toward Alaska Air, Southwest or Virgin America, three domestic airlines that don't charge a Â?preferred seatingÂ? fee. This relatively new charge can add $9 to $39 to the cost of each ticket on a major carrier; in return, you get to choose your own seat on the plane.
Families find this fee particularly odious, because it effectively holds them hostage: pay up, or you risk that you might not be seated next to your kids. And it gets worse. Since many passengers will have paid extra for an aisle or window seat, it's getting harder to find folks willing to swap seats so a family can sit together.
Stay flexible. Of course you want to fly out the night before Thanksgiving and return home on Sunday. But guess what? So does everyone else. Airfares are based on supply and demand, so prices are always higher on peak days. For the past several years, legacy airlines have imposed an additional surcharge of $20 to $40 to fly on the half a dozen most popular holiday travel days. Why? Because they can.
So play around with possible travel dates. If you fly out first thing Thursday morning, you'll still get to Grandma's before the turkey hits the table, plus you can avoid the nasty peak travel fee. This can save a family of four as much as $320 roundtrip.
Hedge your bets. Even if you use multiple travel booking sites to comparison shop, it's always smart to book your flights directly with the airline. That way, if the fare drops after you buy your ticket, you can often get a refund for the difference.
Is it a major hassle to track prices? Not if you sign up with Yapta, a free service that will e-mail an alert if the price drops below what you paid. The average Yapta member saves over $334 per year.