Travelers looking to be home for Christmas this year are discovering that if they don't book soon, they may spend part of their gift budget on airfare.
Domestic fares for Christmas travel are already up 1.5% compared with last year, to an average $406, according to booking site Travelocity. International fares are up 5%, to $922. Consumers who wait beyond this week could see prices rise by roughly $5 per day, says Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com, though he says that figure is likely to vary by route and demand.
While Thanksgiving fare deals often require traveling on the holiday itself, travelers heading home for Christmas have a little more wiggle room to get a good price, says Melissa Klurman, a contributing editor for Travelocity. "Christmas starts Dec. 16, as far as the airlines are concerned, and runs through Jan. 2," she says. "It's a much larger window." Travelers who can avoid flying on Dec. 23 and Dec. 26 are likely to get better prices -- most major airlines plan to tack on peak-travel surcharges of $20 to $50 on those days.
Travel experts also recommend scheduling the bulk of your time away leading up to Christmas, rather than after. Travelers leaving by Dec. 21 and returning Dec. 27 could pay as little as $200 round-trip -- half the expense of those leaving just before Christmas and lingering through New Year's, says Tom Parsons, chief executive of BestFares.com. Those with a few as-yet-unscheduled vacation days should try a flexible date search to find the cheapest combination.
But early bookers still need to worry about the weather, Seaney says. Rising airfare and fewer flights this year may prove a perfect storm if a blizzard hits (As it is, roughly one in five flights is cancelled or delayed during those last two weeks in December, Seaney says) "It's Boy Scout motto time: plan for the worst and hope for the best," he says.
Indeed, to minimize weather-related delays or cancellations, experts recommend book a flight as early in the day as possible, which is less likely to be cancelled -- and is often cheaper, too. Although it may add to your expense, Seaney says travelers should consider a non-stop flight. "Connecting adds on more stops where you might get stuck," he says.