Fewer Holiday Travelers This Year Will Mean Higher Ticket Prices

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If you haven’t booked your flight for Thanksgiving, be prepared to pay up: Ticket prices around the holiday will be 6% to 12% higher than last year.

With the economy still looking bleak, airlines have cut thousands of seats around the holidays, which means for many, there will be fewer empty seats with only high-priced ones available.

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Airline officials are predicting fewer Thanksgiving travelers this year, down an estimated 2% from 2010. Those middle seats that are often empty? They’ll probably be full on your flight home.

According to the Los Angeles Times, airlines are not only predicting fewer flyers this year, but many carriers are also struggling with their own financial problems. Jet fuel prices and the costs of labor have increased since last year. Expenses have outpaced airline revenue in the first nine months of the year, and airline stocks have fallen about 25%.

Also, mergers have decreased competition in the industry, which have driven prices skyward. United and Continental merged about a year ago (although they still operate as two separate airlines), and Southwest acquired AirTran Airways earlier this year. Plus, airline officials are concerned about an Obama administration proposal to increase airline taxes. Altogether, it’s no wonder that we’ve seen airlines increase fares this year. Six of the biggest carriers have raised fares nine times in 2011.

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So what can you do to get the cheapest flights for the holidays? If you’re still looking to book a flight for Thanksgiving, you might be stuck paying more to get home. But there are often still last-minute deals if you’re willing to gamble. Using price alerts on sites like Kayak can help you know when ticket prices have dipped.

If you’re traveling around Christmas, there’s still time to get a good deal. Experts expect cheap ticket prices around the first week of December, before they start spiking the following week. If you’re willing to get up when the sun’s still down, early morning flights tend to be cheapest. And they also tend to be on-time more often than afternoon and evening flights.