Today is Labor Day, so who wants to be thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas?
If Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com, had his way, you'd put down that poolside cheeseburger and open your laptop. It's time to start booking holiday air travel or at least researching prices. In fact, you might be late if you want to travel the day before Thanksgiving or the Sunday after, two of the busiest travel days of the year. You should have booked those trips in February to get the best fares, he said. It's never too early to buy tickets for holiday travel.
Klee, whose site searches the Internet for the best airfares and then lets users book those flights, has a handful of ideas that can help save money on holiday travel. Most important, get going, he said. At least start researching the prices of flights. That way, Klee said, you'll know when something better comes along.
We talked to Klee by phone from Los Angeles last week about why air travel is so expensive and what consumers can do to get the best deal.
What's your prediction for holiday airfares?
They seem to be higher than last year, and those were higher than the year before. There's a couple reasons for that: Fuel costs are higher again, and there's a lot less capacity, especially on domestic flights. Fewer airlines, fewer flights and fewer seats. That makes it tough to get good fares at peak travel times.
Airfares have been pretty high for the past year. Do you see them coming back down?
Not really. The airline industry has lost a ton of money over the last decade. There was too much capacity; too many airlines with too many seats so the airlines couldn't make any money. Since the recession started in 2008, the airlines have wised up and steadily removed capacity. Some went out of business. Most airlines are profitable now. Not great news for travelers.
What will be the busiest and most expensive days for travel?
The day before and the Sunday after Thanksgiving. If you can avoid those days you can save a lot of money. The thing that makes Thanksgiving so challenging is the small number of days (people have to travel). Christmas has a longer window so you're likely to find some better prices. Christmas Day and New Year's Day are on Tuesdays (this year) so it's not so obvious when people will people be traveling, though we know that the Friday and Saturday before and the Sunday after those holidays will be busy.
How about flying on the holiday?
If you can fly then, that's always a good thing. Not everyone wants to do it but prices are generally lower.
Are there better days to book flights?
Tuesdays and Wednesdays have been the best times to buy tickets. One airline will start a fare sale and then all others will match. Southwest has been the leading sale airline and it tends to have sales on Tuesdays, then other airlines meet it that day or the next.
If Christmas and New Year's aren't as busy as Thanksgiving, when should travelers book flights for them?
You wouldn't need to book right this second, but it's helpful to start checking fares as soon as you can so you can get a sense for what the market and prices are like. Then check back often. If you can check every few days, you'll see that fares are dropping. The important thing then is to act fast. Signing up for fare alerts from our website or others can help you measure the trends.
What else helps keep costs down?
I cannot overstate the importance of being flexible. This can make a significant difference in price. Airline load factors are literally higher than they've ever been, and Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the hardest days to fill. On those days, you'll often see more aggressive discounting for tickets. (Though not likely when the holidays fall on those days.) Also, check alternative airports nearby to one you usually fly to. You'd be surprised at the difference in price. An airport that's 40 miles away might be way cheaper than the airport you thought to check first.
For non-holiday travel, how far out should you book tickets?
On average the best time is six weeks before the flight. What happens is that when an airline first opens a flight for sale — about 11 months out — the fares are typically on the high side. They let them sit for four months or so to get an idea of bookings, then start to run sales. Sales normally target flights about six weeks out.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.