By Rick Seaney (USA Today) -- Flying over the holidays? It may seem like you just wrapped up your summer vacation but the time to start shopping for holiday flights is NOW.
What can I expect to pay for holiday flights?
On average, expect to pay about $40 more than you forked over last year, but this will range higher or lower depending on when you buy. Take a look at the graph further below showing the average difference in lowest published airfare on flights to and from the top 50 cities in the U.S. and Canada during Thanksgiving week:
Why are holiday airfares higher?
Fares are trending higher for a couple of reasons. For one thing, despite our lousy economy, the airlines have noticed that we really haven't slacked off flying much, so demand is holding relatively steady. Even more important, though, is the capacity issue: most airlines have been chopping seats like crazy, the better to fly full (and more profitable) planes.
MAP: Airline schedules changes at U.S. airports
In fact, during this Thanksgiving travel period alone, beginning with the Saturday before the holiday to the Monday after (Nov. 19-28), airlines have dropped more than 600,000 seats! And if you look at that data in terms of reduced flights, it equates to 8,000 fewer planeloads. The biggest capacity cutters: AirTran, American, Delta, Frontier, and United. However, it must also be noted that a couple of mavericks are doing just the opposite, as both Southwest and US Airways are actually adding seats.
So when should I buy my holiday airfare?
For Thanksgiving tickets, start now. Every day you wait means an extra $5 added to your round-trip total. Once we hit the last week in October, you can start adding that extra $5 round-trip each day to your Christmas airfare, too.
To put this in perspective, in 2010, airlines increased the majority of fares by more than $100 from Oct. 10 through Nov. 19, and we're seeing signs that this year will be no different.
What are your best tips for shopping and flying during the holidays?
There are five of them, and you can start putting them to use right now.
1. Shop early: The longer you delay, the more your ticket will cost.
2. Don't wait 'til the last minute: Since anything is possible, sure, there might be a terrific last minute bargain, but it's far more likely that procrastinators won't get a seat at any price.
3. Avoid the busiest (and most expensive) travel days: Airline surcharge dates tell you everything you need to know; the Sunday after Thanksgiving (Nov. 27) is a date to avoid, and try not to fly on Dec. 22, 23, 26 and Jan. 2, either. If worse comes to worst, try to schedule your itinerary so you fly on only one of the "most expensive" days, and you'll still see some savings.
4. Pay fees that are worth it: If you're traveling light, which I always recommend, this might be the time to shell out for an early boarding fee, to be sure you'll find bin space for your carry on. These fees can be as little as ten bucks and at holiday time, it's well worth the money.
5. Use technology: Don't let the word scare you; all I mean by "technology" is setting up alerts with your airline to notify you of delays. Be sure whoever picks you up at the airport gets these alerts, too.
What should I do if my holiday flight is delayed?
When it comes to delays, holiday time is a perfect storm of potentially bad winter weather and filled-to-capacity planes.
If anything goes wrong, you could be stuck in the airport, so follow these tips to minimize your risk: First, be sure all your devices are fully charged (and bring your chargers with you). Then make sure you have your airline's number in your phone (if you've got elite status, go with the special "hotline" number).
If your flight is canceled, get in line to get a new flight, but get on the phone, too. You never know which method will work faster, and the name of the game when it comes to cancellations is grabbing the next available seat before the other guy does.
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FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney is an airline industry insider and top media air travel resource. Follow Rick on Twitter @rickseaney