Cutbacks in leisure> and business travel during the holidays have put pressure on the airlines and created a brief window of opportunity for fliers who can book their tickets early. But a swift response by the airlines could close that window in just a few weeks. At that point, higher fares could be the least of your problems in getting home.
According to a recent survey from American Express (AXP),
But the deals are likely to end by early November. It s no secret that there s a shorter shelf life on low holiday fares this year. Since early fall, airlines have begun adjusting seat capacity on holiday flights to reflect the decrease in consumer demand. Companies have scaled back the number of seats available at the cheapest price points and boosted fares with a $10 surcharge on high-traffic travel days, says Basili Alukos, an equity analyst with Morningstar who tracks airline stocks. To me, that s the biggest signal that airlines are acting more rationally, he says. They re finally charging what their services are worth.
And despite the notorious delays and pitfalls of holiday travel, now heaped on top of extra baggage fees and no-food flights, consumers still seem to be interested. Holiday flight searches on Priceline (PCLN)
Here s how to navigate five potential pitfalls of booking holiday travel:
Problem: Wavering fares
Solution: Set a deadline
You still have some time to look for the best possible price. There s upheaval in the market as airlines balance reducing their seat capacity with luring in enough potential travelers to fill planes, Seaney says. If you re not thrilled with current prices, check back several times a day over the next few weeks. But don t wait later than the end of October for Thanksgiving tickets; or mid-November for the winter holidays. Prices are likely to rise precipitously a month out as the remaining cheap seats sell out swiftly, he says.
Problem: High-traffic surcharges
Solution: Be flexible about your travel date and carrier
In recent weeks, AirTran (AAI),
Avoiding these fees comes down to flying on an airline that doesn t charge them, such as Southwest, or avoiding high-traffic days altogether. Hobica recommends trying flexible-date searches on Orbitz (OWW)
Problem: Reduced seat capacity
Solution: Skip skimpy hubs
To cope with reduced consumer demand, airlines have scaled back flights and switched to smaller planes so that every flight is as full as possible, Koehler says. That s true in cities across the country. Compared with last year, airlines have 23% fewer seats flying through Cincinnati on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, according to FareCompare.com. Hartford, Conn., lost 15%, while Tampa lost 12%. A few hubs have gained seats: Milwaukee will gain 29%, and Anchorage is up 6%.
For consumers, reduced seat capacity can lead to problems if a flight is delayed or cancelled: There are likely to be fewer (if any) open seats on comparable flights. Try to avoid connecting through a hub where capacity has been reduced (see FareCompare s chart here or where flights are infrequent. Flying direct? Reduced seat capacity is one more reason to book now.
Problem: Flight delays
Solution: Book the first flight out
Thanksgiving is at the cusp of bad-weather possibilities, Seaney says. Book the first flight out, which is more likely to originate at that airport. Later flights are more likely to originate elsewhere, making them more susceptible to delays or cancellations because of weather across the nation.
Problem: Rescheduled flights
Solution: Call customer service
As airlines tweak their flight schedules, customers may receive at least one email between booking and takeoff notifying them of a time or route change, Hobica says. It s also possible for a nonstop flight to morph into one with a layover. If that happens and the flight is no longer convenient, get on the phone with airline customer service, he says. The agent may be able to switch your schedule without the usual change fee.