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In Shift From ’08, Holiday Airfare Is Soaring Daily

Michelle Higgins|The New York Times
Friday, 16 Oct 2009 | 10:59 AM ET

Last year, procrastinators were rewarded when they finally got around to booking flights for holiday travel. Back then, airlines were not prepared for the sharp falloff in travel and offered last-minute deals to fill up empty planes.

This year? Dilly-dallying, even waiting just a few days, could carry a steep price. Fares, though still lower now than at this time last year, are rising each day, a trajectory that began more than a month ago.

In the last week alone, overall fares for Thanksgiving travel rose 6 percent, according to Bing Travel, part of Microsoft’s search engine. Ticket prices for the most popular itinerary, departing Wednesday, Nov. 25, and returning Sunday, Nov. 29, are up 10 percent in the last week.

In recent weeks, some flights have risen even more. From New York, a round-trip American Airlines flight to Chicago that cost $354 on Sept. 14 was $540 on Thursday, a 52 percent jump, according to Yapta.com, which tracks fares.

A JetBlue flight to Orlando that was $524 on Sept. 24 was $614 on Thursday, and a Continental flight from Newark to San Francisco that was $504 on Sept. 18 was $770.

That does not count all the extra fees — some added just for holiday travel days — that airlines are charging this year.

The professional crystal-ball gazers on fares agree that fliers should not wait to book their tickets.

“Travelers should be shopping now,” said Joel Grus, who tracks airfares at Bing Travel. “If a price seems good to them, they should get it.”

Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com, wrote in his online Holiday Travel Guide, “Holiday travel procrastinators do so at their own peril this year, and practical travelers should be shopping now and buying before the end of October.”

Anne Eddy is kicking herself for waiting. In August, she paid $313 for a round-trip flight from Providence, R.I., to Houston to take her son Duncan to Rice University, where he is a freshman. A week later, she paid $632 — roughly double — to buy him a ticket home for Thanksgiving.

“I felt behind the game,” said Ms. Eddy, a health care administrator from Needham, Mass.

Determined to get ahead of it, she immediately booked a flight for him at Christmas. It was $309 round trip. A recent online search showed that if she had waited any longer for the Thanksgiving reservation, she might have had to pay more than $800 — if she could get a seat at all.

The lesson?

“If you book way in advance, you can get really good deals,” she said.

Airlines now have an advantage in the endless game of cat-and-mouse with travelers. Because of the recession, they have been grounding planes. Fewer seats for sale gives them more power to set prices, since they are less desperate to get even modest fares to help fill up planes.

The number of domestic seats for sale is down 5 percent this month, compared with October last year, and they are down 21 percent from October 2000, according to OAG, an aviation-data firm.

“Essentially, that’s creating a sellers’ market,” said Jeff Pecor, a spokesman for Yapta.com, which alerts fliers to price drops even after the ticket has been bought so travelers can call the airline to claim a travel credit.

“While we’re tracking roughly the same number of flights for this holiday season as last year, we have issued fewer price drop alerts on flights,” he added.

All of this means travelers who plan early and are flexible in their schedules are more likely to get a bargain this year.

Marisa W. Green, an orchestral conductor from Hightstown, N.J., was able to lower the cost of her Thanksgiving flight to Cleveland about $75, to $226 round trip, by leaving from Newark and returning to Philadelphia.

It also helped that she was able to avoid the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after and is making a stop in Baltimore on the way there.

“The worst thing that happens is I miss my connection,” she said.

“The best thing that could happen: one of those flights is oversold and I get bumped,” she added, because she is in no rush to get home and would be willing to give up her seat and endure a delay in exchange for a voucher for a free flight.

She may get her wish. The rate at which passengers were bumped in the second quarter of this year rose about 40 percent compared with a year earlier, according to the Department of Transportation, even though that agency last year doubled the penalties airlines must pay passengers who are denied seats.

Passengers are generally reluctant to give up seats when trying to get home for the holidays. But they may be even more disinclined to raise their hands this year because they may have trouble getting a seat on another flight.

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