You Have No Prayer of Getting a Cheap Flight for the Holidays

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Virgin America Handout / AP

Everyone knows that booking early is the only hope travelers have to avoid paying through the nose for holiday flights. This year, the price of booking at the last minute may be higher than ever.

The traditional approach to getting the best prices on holiday flights has been to book early. Based on years of data, Hipmunk, CheapAir, and other flight search sites say that travelers hoping to fly around Thanksgiving and/or Christmas will generally snag the lowest prices by closing the deal 60 to 90 days ahead of time — in late summer or the weeks after Labor Day. Fluky sales do sometimes pop up later in the fall, but for the most part, travelers can expect prices to rise steadily as flights fill up and the holidays creep closer.

While it may be true that fliers who’ve booked early have gotten the best deals, the holiday flights booked thus far haven’t exactly been cheap. The Wall Street Journal’s Scott McCartney points to data from the Airlines Reporting Corp., which indicates that so far flight prices for Thanksgiving travel are up a steep 9.4% compared to a year ago. Prices for Christmas week departures have increased 7.3% compared to the same period in 2012.

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The trend follows a larger pattern in the travel industry in which airline passengers have come to expect higher prices, fees rather than perks, and more crowded flights. During peak holiday travel, the airlines’ strategies to hike revenues also reach their peak because so many travelers have no choice but to pay whatever the asking price is at the time they get their holiday plans in order.

Travel experts offer plenty of suggestions for avoiding sky-high holiday fares. The website CheapAir recommends that fliers avoid traveling on December 1 (Sunday after Thanksgiving) and January 5 (Sunday after Christmas) in particular because fares will be absolutely through the roof. The reason that prices will be so high, mind you, is that these are the dates that most people want to fly — and in some cases, they’re the only dates that people can fly. Airlines are well aware that this is the case, of course, and they price flights accordingly, knowing that some passengers will book on these dates no matter how absurd the price.

Added into this mix is the fact that flights are more crowded than ever even during non-holiday periods — typically 85% full — thanks to consolidation and airlines seeking profits by offering fewer flights and eliminating less profitable routes.

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In any event, going forward, travelers are all but guaranteed to pay more for holiday period flights with each passing day. So get your plans in order and book your flights ASAP—or start thinking up good excuses for why you won’t be at Grandma’s house this Thanksgiving.