Shoppers counting down the days until Black Friday may find that at least one purchase is best made in advance -- airfare for the December holidays.
Domestic fares for late December -- encompassing the end of Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year's -- are currently averaging $417 round trip, according to Travelocity. This time last year, Travelocity cited a $407 average.
But prices are rising swiftly, experts warn. Travelers can expect to see prices rise $10 to $50 each day they wait, depending on the route, says Rick Seaney, the chief executive of fare-tracking site FareCompare.com. During Thanksgiving week, when consumers generally turn an eye to making those holiday plans, jumps can be even bigger, he warns.
Wait too long, and the risk is that you might not get a seat, period, says Courtney Scott, a spokeswoman for Travelocity. There are fewer seats to choose from, she says.
Last month, Delta announced it would cut capacity by 1% to 3% during the fourth quarter, with the deepest cuts on its international routes, while United said it would have 2.2% to 3.2% fewer seats than last year during the fourth quarter. (Those capacity cuts are also fueling higher fares, as airlines' cheap seats sell out.)
Aside from booking early, travelers' best bet at a decent fare is scheduling their flights to avoid peak travel days. If you can travel before Dec. 18, so much the better, Seaney says. That's the day most airlines designate as the start to the holiday period.
This year, Dec. 23, 24, 28 and 29 are among the dates to avoid, says Jamie Freeman, the North America group publisher for sale site Travelzoo. "Those are the days everyone wants to fly," she says. According to the site's research, the cheapest dates are Dec. 18 and 19 and Jan. 2, as well as Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Consumers may find deals along particular routes where there is less demand, too, although airlines typically exclude holiday dates from fare sales, she says.
Fees are also worth a look to determine the best flight. It's harder to get away with just a carry-on bag "when you have an entire suitcase filled with gifts for (or from) your loved ones," says Scott. Some airlines offer a discount on bag fees if paid in advance of arriving at the airport, so plan ahead, she says. Spirit, for example, charges $30 for a first checked bag when paid for at booking, versus $35 during online check-in and $45 at the airport counter.
Fliers shouldn't be dreaming of a white Christmas, either. The same capacity cuts pushing up fares spell trouble for canceled and delayed flights; carriers may not have a timely flight on which to rebook you, Seaney says.
To limit risk, book a flight as early in the day as possible. Experts say those are less likely to be canceled, and are often the cheapest flight of the day to boot. Picking a nonstop flight also avoids the potential pitfall of getting stuck midtrip.