Haven't booked your holiday travel yet? No need to panic even at this late date, say experts, but it's best to get a move on and nail down airfares and travel dates now for both simple trips and longer holiday getaways. Finding flight times and fares that won't spoil the spirit of the season will be a lot easier if you follow a few helpful—and sometimes counterintuitive—hints and workarounds.
Staying realistic helps, too, said Michael Holtz, owner of New York luxury travel agency SmartFlyer. "There is still a lot of capacity [and] good value, but obviously not on peak travel days [e.g., the day before Thanksgiving and week between Christmas and New Year's] when, say, everyone in New York wants to go to South Beach," he added.
But despair not, said high-end travel agent Anne Morgan Scully, president of McCabe World Travel in McLean, Va. "People should be confident that if [they] want to go away they probably can," she said. "There's still great value out there, even over the holidays, depending on how you purchase your travel."
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Here are some tips for getting where you need to go, at the right time and for less:
Book now: There's no way around the rule of supply and demand, so the earlier you book, the better. The cheapest holiday airfares were to be had in September through mid-October. Since then, Kayak.com has found, airfares for Thanksgiving increased up to 17 percent, 51 percent for Christmas and 25 percent for New Year's Eve. And those rates for the top 10 destinations—including New York, Orlando, Fla., Las Vegas and Cancun, Mexico—will only increase the closer we get to each holiday. According to Orbitz, they already are up 7 percent compared with the same time last year.
"If you find an airfare or hotel rate you're comfortable with, you need to book it right away," said Kayak.com spokesperson Maria Katime. "Prices are increasing so, in that regard, it is, in fact, a little bit late."
"We're advising clients who want a good deal to consider flying on Christmas Day."
Get dead serious: Consider travel, particularly for more flexible vacations, during what's termed the "dead weeks" between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when fares and crowds plummet. Kayak.com users shopped 82 percent less for flights between Dec. 7 and 19, compared with trips departing Dec. 21 to 26 and returning Dec. 26 to Jan. 2—which Katime called "a huge drop." And dead week fares to warm weather destinations are significantly cheaper, Kayak.com found, with average airfares to Honolulu down 46 percent, and those to Orlando 41 percent less expensive, compared with Christmas.
"Because you're seeing a general drop in both airfare and travel traffic, the dead weeks are a great time to see family or get away to a nice beach destination," Katime said. "It works out in terms of both price and crowds."
Celebrate on high: Being in the air on an actual holiday may not be your idea of a great way to celebrate, but it can save you a lot of money. "We're advising clients who want a good deal to consider flying on Christmas Day," said Holtz of SmartFlyer.
"It's better to hover around the actual holiday dates; people don't want to travel on those days, so you're going to find the best deals then."
Kayak.com advises travel on or as close to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's days as possible. Katime said that "it's better to hover around the actual holiday dates; people don't want to travel on those days, so you're going to find the best deals then." Her recommendations for domestic travel each holiday are:
- Thanksgiving: The best days to depart are Nov. 25 and 26, with fares 15 percent to 23 percent below average. Return on Thanksgiving Day, Friday or the following Tuesday (Dec. 3), when you'll save more than 20 percent.
- Christmas: Depart as close to Dec. 25 as possible; last year, this saved travelers more than 20 percent on average. Avoid the weekends around Christmas, when fares are as much as 24 percent above average.
- New Year's: Shorter trips centered around New Year's Eve and Day offer the cheapest fares, at more than 15 percent below average. Travelers who depart Dec. 29 to Jan. 1 and return Dec. 31 to Jan. 3 can save up to 30 percent.
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Bundle up: If you need a hotel, book your room along with your airfare to save money, according to Expedia. Bundling these expenses "will yield holiday savings," said Sarah Gavin, the online travel agency's director of public relations and social media. "Book the flight and hotel separate, and that money will be left on the table."
Use those miles: Say what? Anyone ever frustrated when trying to use frequent flier miles for trips exactly when and where they want may find this a dubious tack to take. But cashing in miles and rewards points can be the key to getting the peak holiday flights and seats you absolutely must have—if you're prepared to double, or sometimes even triple, down.
"With American Airlines, it's typically 25,000 miles for a [capacity controlled] domestic coach ticket," said Holtz. "But for 50,000 miles, [you] can get a ticket ... on any American flight, even if it's the last seat on the plane."
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Call a travel agent: In this Internet age of do-it-yourself online booking, calling a travel agent for help might seem a retro, and unnecessary, thing to do. But agents still book around one-quarter of all air trips, according to industry estimates, and American Express has found that about 1 in 5 Americans earning at least $100,000 a year still routinely turn to agents for their travel needs.
Given agents' familiarity and relationships with destinations, hotels and cruise lines—not to mention the complicated air travel landscape—it may be worth plunking down a fee of $25 or more to ultimately save on time, money and headaches.
"If everything goes right and you think you bought [your trip] for the lowest price, good on you," said Scully at McCabe World Travel. "But let one thing go wrong and you're just a number." By contrast, McCabe World Travel clients, Scully said, "are known on arrival, thanks to our relationships. We're their advocate."
—By Kenneth Kiesnoski, Special to CNBC.com