Planes are more crowded, and fees seem to keep rising. But travel experts say ticket prices aren't shooting up this year, and with a little planning, you can fly affordably this holiday season. • "Our data shows ticket prices for Thanksgiving up about 1 percent compared to last year, which is less than inflation," Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, wrote in an email.
Here's advice on how to fly affordably:
Pick unpopular days and times
Airlines price every seat as a function of supply and demand, and there's a lot less demand on some days than others. For example, most people want to leave Wednesday night before Thanksgiving and fly home the Sunday after, making these the most expensive days to fly. If you're willing to give up some family time, flying on Thanksgiving Day and returning Saturday, you can possibly save hundreds of dollars. If you fly on the Monday before Thanksgiving with a return trip the Tuesday after, you also can save big. "Usually, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday are the cheapest days to travel," said George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com.
Look at nearby airports
"Everybody suggests that, but people forget," Hobica said of the old trick of flying from a nearby, smaller airport instead of a closer hub. If you're flying to Washington, a flight to Baltimore-Washington International is almost certainly hundreds of dollars less than a flight to Washington Reagan National.
Check airline websites often
"The main advice is to look constantly," Hobica said. He tells people to keep windows open on their browser and to hit "refresh" often throughout the day to see whether the price of a flight changes. Undeclared sales can last for only a few hours on each route. One seat at a lower fare class could open up because of a canceled reservation. Hobica also advises people to look on the airlines' websites, not just flight aggregators such as Kayak and Orbitz. Some airlines, such as Southwest, offer bookings only on their own sites. And an airline's website will always have the most up-to-date information, Hobica said, because the travel websites have to crawl the airlines' websites to get their data.
Don't hesitate to grab a deal
If you spot a deal, book it fast, Hobica said. You're not likely to get anything better by holding out, and you could lose your seat. "If you look on Kayak and you see United is charging $300 and everyone else is charging $500, I'd definitely book," Hobica said.
Wait, if you must
On the other hand, if every flight you can find is too expensive for you, don't give up. Instead, consider waiting a bit, Hobica said. "Sometimes, two weeks before the holidays, the airlines relent and lower fares," he said. "If you simply couldn't afford an $800 fare, you have nothing to lose if you wait and look a couple weeks before."
Don't go crazy
Airline pricing is a phenomenally complicated business. "They're changing constantly," Hobica said of airfares, which might be parceled out in 20 price classes for different blocks of seats on every plane. "They adjust the number of seats available in all fare classes throughout the day." In the end, Hobica said, there's no way to game the system. The best advice: Be doggedly persistent.