Taking the holiday blues and hassles out of air travel

Airfares can fluctuate even within the span of a few hours, but the direction of holiday travel prices is one-way: up.

Based on early bookings, Travelocity recently reported that the average domestic airfare over Thanksgiving will be about 4 percent higher than last year, to $376, including taxes. Overall, holiday travelers can expect fares to be up from between 3 percent and 10 percent, travel specialists say.

What's behind the increases? Largely supply and demand.

Industry mergers have reduced the number of available seats. Airlines, anticipating fewer passengers because of the weak economy, have cut flights, says Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com, a travel website. And, he adds, fuel prices remain too volatile to put any downward pressure on fares.

Besides, with so many people wanting to travel during the holidays, airlines generally don't have to lower prices to attract passengers.

If you haven't started shopping for tickets, get to it now. Set up alerts with the airlines or travel websites such as FareCompare or Airfarewatchdog.com so you can see when fares fall.

And if you see a price that's attractive, grab it instead of waiting to see if it will fall further, travel specialists say. If you hold off too long, you could end up stuck in an uncomfortable middle seat or unable to sit with your travel companions.

Seaney says that starting this week, travelers can expect to see airfares for the Thanksgiving holiday go up each day by an average of $5 per round trip. He advises travelers not to wait beyond the first week of next month to buy a ticket for Thanksgiving.

For departures after Dec. 15, he says, the daily ratcheting up of fares will start the first week of November.

Nonstop flights are pricey but worth the extra money during the winter holidays, travel experts say. Flying nonstop means you don't have to worry about missing a connecting flight or making multiple new arrangements in case of a snowstorm.

Here are other holiday travel tips:

Choose off-peak times In December, consumers spread out their travel days. But for Thanksgiving, most people want flights leaving the Wednesday before the holiday and returning the following Sunday.

Because the Thanksgiving period is in such high demand, you'll pay a premium. For instance, flying the Sunday after Thanksgiving can cost $50 more than usual, Seaney says.

You can save money by flying on less-popular days, says Seaney, who suggests leaving on a Monday or Tuesday and returning on Saturday.

But money isn't the only reason to avoid the peak days.

"That's when lines are out the door at the airport and everyone is stressed," says Christopher Elliott, reader advocate for National Geographic Traveler magazine.

If you really want to avoid the hassle of crowds — and save money — fly on the holiday itself, when planes are about 40 percent empty. That means more room in bins and on armrests.

"If you think about it, you really want to be on the plane that day," Elliott says. "You show up just before dinner begins and someone puts a drink in your hand and you're a happy camper."

Or, Elliott suggests, change the day you celebrate the holiday.

He says his family gathers for Thanksgiving two weeks before the official date. "Everyone can afford to fly in," he says. "Flights are very, very affordable."

Get ahead of the line If you're going to face the crowds, consider paying what Seaney calls "cut in line" fees.

For a price — $10 at Southwest Airlines — many airlines offer priority boarding so passengers can get on the plane ahead of the pack. One of the advantages: room to store your stuff. "Bin space will be at a premium," Seaney says.

Some airline credit cards automatically provide priority boarding if you use them to buy your ticket, he adds.

A standby fee, which usually runs $50, will confirm that you can get on a different flight if seats are available, Seaney says. For instance, if you reserved a flight for 3 p.m. and get to the airport hours beforehand, you would be able to switch to an earlier plane to your destination.

Another advantage, he says, is that if your plane is canceled you will be moved to the top of the list for other flights.

Fee-ing frenzy Airlines these days not only charge for checked bags but for Wi-Fi, extra legroom, blankets, snacks and other perks that used to be free.

"You can spend anywhere from half the value of the ticket or twice the value on extra fees," Elliott says. "It's all about the fees now."

Check an airline's fees before buying a ticket. Southwest, for instance, doesn't charge anything for the first two checked bags, while other airlines charge $20 to $25 for one bag and go up from there.

If you don't think fees can get any worse, they can, says Anne Banas, executive editor of the consumer website SmarterTravel.

A few airlines are starting to charge $400 to $450 one way to carry a bag over 70 pounds on certain international flights, she says. Granted, 70 pounds is hefty, but so is a $900 round-trip baggage fee.

Bumping rights Your chances of being involuntarily bumped go up around the holidays, Banas says, adding that airlines always overbook flights, calculating that some travelers will be no-shows.

Not only do more people fly over the holidays, but more are unwilling to voluntarily give up their seats, she says.

Travelers unwillingly bumped this holiday season will get more cash for the inconvenience because of new federal rights that took effect in late August.

You can now receive twice the price of your ticket, but no more than $650, if the airline gets you to your destination no later than two hours behind schedule on a domestic flight and four hours on an international flight. If it takes longer, you're entitled to four times the ticket price, but not more than $1,300.

When things go wrong If your flight is canceled or delayed, don't just stand in line with everyone else, Elliott says.

"You want to work every angle," he advises. While in line, he says, call the airlines and go online to check out your options.

Or write to Elliott's blog at Elliott.org. The reader advocate says he often troubleshoots for people stuck at the airport with no one to help them.

"The holidays are my busiest time," he says. "It's crazy."