Holiday air fares: You can't afford to wait

If you see a good fare, grab it

ORLANDO, Fla. - If it seems too early to plan for holiday travel, then you haven't talked to the airlines.  Planes are filling up and good deals are disappearing.  If you intend to plan by the seat of your pants, you could end up losing your shirt.   Shop now.  Right now.

Normally, you'll find the best fare for a destination about six weeks ahead of departure, but that's not necessarily true for the holidays.  We're closing in on the six-week mark for Thanksgiving, but it might already be too late to grab a cheap seat.

Holiday travel is not just about fares; it's about inventory.  Thanksgiving is one of the busiest, if not the busiest, weekends for travel.  A good fare today is not likely to go down, nor is it likely to last.  Airlines have cut back on their schedules, and planes are filling up quickly.  Carries will be under no pressure to deeply discount.

Don't wait for the six-week sweet spot for Christmas either.   If you see a good fare, book it.  Of course, you have to know a good fare to see a good fare, but that's easy. Here's my suggestion: Plug in fake dates for a future flight, say, middle of January, during an off-peak time, or even the second week of December.  The search should show you an average fare and give you a general feel for what kind of premium, if any, you're paying for holiday tickets.  Some search sites also include year-round averages.

Next comes my favorite secret (or what once was my favorite secret), but now that it's common knowledge I'll confirm that, yes, flying on the holiday, itself, is almost always cheaper.  You'll probably find the lowest fares on Thanksgiving day, late Christmas Eve, and Christmas day.  If you're family loves you, they'll wait.  If not, why are you going?

Coming home presents its own unique challenges.  The Sunday or Monday after Thanksgiving?  Forget it.  The cheapest return will likely be Saturday, or the Tuesday after the holiday.  As for the week of Christmas, you'll probably find a decent fare to get out of Central Florida, but it's crazy (a nightmare!) getting back.  Everyone (or certainly it seems that way) comes to Orlando for Christmas vacation, so you may find yourself paying double for the privilege of flying home.  It all goes back to inventory and the law of supply and demand.

But don't despair, I have a strategy for that, too.  I call it Mix n' Match.

Several years ago domestic carriers eliminated the round-trip requirement for the lowest fares.  So, I open several windows when I'm shopping online and search my trips as one-way flights.  Often I find one airline offers a great deal leaving Orlando, while another offers an unusually low fare coming back.  If so, I book two one-ways on separate carriers instead of a more expensive round-trip on an individual airline.

The least expensive days to fly still remain Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday because those are days with less demand.  My advice: pick a day and time when you know no one else wants to fly, like 5 a.m. in the middle of the week, and chances are you'll have enough money left over to buy your Aunt Betty that overpowering perfume she loves so much.

Good luck and happy flying.

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