This Friday marks the beginning of the sweet spot for reduced airfares for Thanksgiving Day, travel experts say. If you're looking to fly somewhere for the four-day holiday, they add, the best time to book is the first two weeks of October, when airlines put some seats on sale.
And there's the rub. Carriers will reduce fares for just a few seats per flight. With ticket prices climbing by 13% this holiday season over last year for an average round trip domestic airfare of $384 -- and the number of flights remaining the same as 2009 when far fewer folks were flying -- there's likely to be stiff competition for the cheapest seats.
"If you want to go to a specific place on a specific day you're going to have to book early to do that," said Anne Banas, an executive editor at SmarterTravel.com.
Here are some tips on how to grab those highly coveted cheap seats:
1. Book now. For the last few weeks, editors at SmarterTravel.com have monitored prices between 100 of the most popular cities for Thanksgiving travel and found that fares are slowly dropping as we approach the end of the month. The same trend occurred last fall, when airlines put Thanksgiving fares on sale in early October, Banas said. At Bing, fareologists said there are 50% more price drops during the holidays if you know how to look for them.
2. Set alerts. Sites that let you search flights on multiple airlines at the same time, like Expedia, Bing and Kayak, will track prices for you routes of your choice. When the prices fall, they will send an alert to your e-mail. These alerts will help you benchmark prices over several days.
3. Be flexible. If you plan to leave the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and return the Sunday after, you could pay as much as $170 more for your ticket, said Genevieve Shaw Brown, Travelocity's senior editor. Some experts suggest that traveling on Thanksgiving day is a good way to snag a cheap seat. Most travelers stay on average for five-and-a-half days, so extending your trip, or shortening it, could also lower your ticket price.
"Consider flying out early on Thanksgiving day itself, when flights can be exceptionally discounted and airports less crowded," said Darren Frei, editorial director at ShermansTravel.com. "But be aware that you always run the risk of delays or cancellations, which could mean missing out on the big feast."
Airlines are also tacking surcharges of up to $20 each way on ticket prices on the most popular travel dates around the holidays. So it pays to book on the less popular times, as well as from the airline directly, where you can read the fine print about surcharges before paying for a flight.
4. Fly alternative airports. Millions who call the Los Angeles basin home can choose flights from five airports -- as can those in New York City. Do a cost comparison on routes from different facilities and then calculate how much it will cost to drive or take public transit to that airport, Banas suggested.
Travelocity offers a way to compare surrounding airports to see which combination of facilities will yield the cheapest fare, Brown said. For example, the most popular route this Thanksgiving is from New York to South Florida, both of which are served by three airports, she added.
If you're worried about finding a parking place, experts also advise to book your spot early. One handy way to do that is to visit www.parkflyrideusa.com, which allows travelers to reserve spaces at discount lots at airports nationwide.
5. Consider alternate transportation. If you're traveling fewer than 300 miles, experts say it may be cheaper to drive, or take a train or bus. It's wise to check gasoline costs first for such a trip on AAA's Fuel Cost Calculator. If you have time, and companions for the road, it might be less expensive to drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco, or Los Angeles and Las Vegas, especially when you factor in time it takes to get to the airport and wait in line to go through security, as well as fees to check your luggage.
Five ways to save money on Thanksgiving travel now