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Shop holiday airfares now to avoid Grinch-like prices

Have you started your holiday shopping yet? There are still more than 100 shopping days left before Christmas, but travelers looking to save on holiday airfare may have a much shorter window.

If you're flying to one of the top 20 markets, booking six weeks out – by Oct. 3 for Thanksgiving fares, and Nov. 7 for Christmas travel – typically saves 14 percent, according to a new analysis from fare comparison site Hipmunk.

But if you're traveling to or from a smaller airport, the prime time for Christmas fares is the week of Oct. 12, with savings of 15 percent. For Thanksgiving, prices are at their lowest – with savings of 17 percent, the week of Sept. 5.

Yes, that's this week.

"If you're going to a small market, set a fare alert," said Kelly Soderlund, a spokeswoman for Hipmunk.

Larger airports tend to have fewer fare fluctuations, giving travelers more leeway to assess their plans and track prices, she said. Fares through smaller airports are already pricier than those in big markets, the analysis found, and tend to continue trending upward as the holidays approach.

If you can't solidify your plans just yet, there's often another break in prices two weeks out from the holiday, depending on demand for a particular route, Soderlund said.

Keep in mind that pricing data doesn't necessarily mean you should book indiscriminately, said George Hobica, publisher of travel site AirfareWatchdog.com. The flight may have only middle seats left, leave at an inconvenient hour or have a long layover in a city that's prone to delays from winter weather.

"There's always the extra, extra large fuchsia sweater in the bargain bin," he said. "That data is just price, not value."

For holiday travel home, most travelers have a sense of what a good price is on that route, Hobica said. So set price and sale alerts and start monitoring. You'll know when the time is right.

"I don't believe there's a magic time to book, but there is a magic time to look – and that is every day," he said.