Now's the time to start scouting holiday airfares

With Halloween still a month out, it might be premature to buy your plane ticket for the winter holidays, but it's not too early to start fare shopping.

The price of tickets can fluctuate widely over days, or even hours. And, by keeping a close eye on tickets to your holiday destination now, you'll be in a better position to know when a fare is fair and to pounce before it changes.

The weak economy and high unemployment coupled with less plane capacity these days makes it hard to predict where fares are headed this holiday season, travel experts say. Airlines are keeping an eye on moves by competitors while taking the pulse of consumer demand by watching advance bookings.

"It's a crapshoot," says Tim Winship, publisher of

Bing Travel forecasts that the price of a domestic flight over Thanksgiving will average $310, a 3 percent drop from last year and 13 percent cheaper than in 2008. Domestic flights during Christmas and New Year's will average $368, a 2 percent uptick over last year. Although if you're traveling during the most desirable days during the holidays, you can expect to pay more than these averages.

George Hobica, founder of, expects fares to be up slightly overall compared to a year ago, and as much as 10 percent to 20 percent higher for peak travel times. He points out that continued consolidation in the industry, such as the pending merger of United Airlines and Continental Airlines, has left fewer players competing for customers.

When scouting for the best fares, consider:

Fare alerts Sign up for e-mail notices from travel sites such as Travelocity, Orbitz and Expedia so you'll get a heads-up when prices to your destination drop. Fare alerts often don't give information on specific flights, so frequently check travel sites or the airlines for times and dates you're interested in, Hobica says.

"Check every day, and when it hits a level that you think is reasonable, go for it," he says.

October deals Travel experts say they have noticed that airlines in recent years cut fares the first two weeks of October, only to raise them after that.

It could be that bookings were weak in early October, and airlines "lowered their price to stimulate demand," Winship speculates. Once lower fares enticed consumers from the sidelines, the airlines boosted prices, he says.

Holiday surcharges Travel close to the holidays and you might pay a "holiday surcharge" of $15 to $20, says Anne Banas, executive editor of

The holiday surcharge appeared last year, and now it's being added to all sorts of holidays, including flights around Easter and Memorial Day, Banas says. You can avoid the fee by not traveling during these popular times or by flying with an airline that doesn't assess it. Major carriers tend to charge the fee, but JetBlue Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Virgin Atlantic don't, she says.

Flexibility pays As always, the more flexible you can be with your travel plans, the better your chances of getting a cheaper seat. You can save "quite a bit of money" if you travel on the designated holidays, such as Christmas Day, Banas says. Warning: You run the risk of having a flight delayed because of a snowstorm and missing the holiday party, she warns.

Expect to share armrests Airlines in recent years have cut the number of seats and flights to better match demand with supply, Winship says. Planes on average this year are flying more than 80 percent full.

"That's very high," Winship says. "When you get to the holiday period, flights are going to be close to 100 percent full. That translates into real discomfort for travelers."

Don't wait too long to book a window or aisle seat, he warns. You might save $20 on a flight by waiting but then get stuck in the middle seat. "How much is your comfort worth to you?" he asks.

Holiday vacations The holidays are all about family. But if you choose not to go home, you can find attractive fares to other locales. Consider overseas. Roundtrip airfare from Baltimore to London leaving the day before Thanksgiving and returning the Sunday after the holiday is $642, Hobica says.

Or treat yourself to business class, where you can experience a flat bed, upgraded food, priority boarding and other perks, Hobica says.

Business travel drops off during the holidays, and sometimes so do fares. American Airlines last week offered a roundtrip business class ticket from Baltimore to London around Thanksgiving for $1,600, with taxes included, while other airlines were charging around $3,000, Hobica says.

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