Holiday airfares close to last year but climbing

Monday, November 9, 2009

If holiday travelers on the same plane compare what they paid to fly, they're likely to find quite a spread, depending on when they bought their tickets.

Fares for travel around the holidays have been rising since late summer. Christmas fares are now running 4 percent below a year ago, and the gap is likely to disappear soon.

Contrast that with a year ago, when the airlines essentially put the holiday travel season on sale. With the recession in full force, airlines used discounting to fill seats.

People who waited to book holiday fares last year saved money. This year, holding off could cost you.

Most carriers pushed through a $10 fare increase at the end of October. For the holidays, the big airlines added a $20 surcharge each way on popular travel days closest to Christmas and New Year's.

Tom Parsons of compared holiday fares purchased July 1 with the same itinerary booked Nov 2. Several had risen 50 percent or more.

Average Thanksgiving fares are up 2 percent to $351, according to Bing Travel, the fare-watching website owned by Microsoft. The average Christmas fare is around $370 roundtrip, slightly below a year ago.

Thanksgiving fares "are up quite a bit even from where they were at the beginning of October," said Joel Grus, who tracks fares for Bing Travel. He also thinks Christmas fares will soon be at last year's levels.

Given the upward trend in fares, Grus says book now. He also advises checking on fares several times a day. Sometimes seats become available at a lower price.

Of course, the cheapest ticket is purchased with frequent flier miles. Some are still available, but Randy Petersen, editor of InsideFlyer magazine, said they're getting scarce because most holiday travelers started booking those as early as August.

Some other things to consider this holiday travel season:

* Some fees are higher. During the last year, airlines began charging $5 more each way if you pay your baggage fee at the airport instead of online. For a family of four traveling with one bag each, that would add up to an additional $40 for a roundtrip, on top of the base baggage fee.

Most airlines now charge $15 to $20 to check your first bag and $25 to $30 for the second. During the last year, airlines began charging $5 more each way if you pay your baggage fee at the airport instead of online.

Southwest still allows two bags for free. JetBlue Airways allows one. Virgin America added a fee of $20 per bag this fall.

* Airlines have reduced their number of flights. That could make it tougher to buy a seat on the flight you want.

* Consider a change in plans. If you want your own personal airfare sale, pay attention to which days you fly. A popular Thanksgiving itinerary is to fly on Wednesday before the holiday and return on Sunday. Grus said fares run about 25 percent cheaper if you fly on Tuesday and return Saturday. Flying on Thanksgiving Day and returning on Monday can save fliers about 30 percent cheaper on average, he said.

Grus said shifting Christmas travel by a day or two doesn't reduce fares nearly as much as it does for Thanksgiving.

* Good news: You may get there on time this year. One positive of fewer flights is less congestion in the air. Airlines arrived on time for 79 percent of their flights through the first eight months of the year. That's an improvement from around 75 percent during the same period last year.

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