Best Time to Buy Thanksgiving Airfare – Is it Too Early?

Okay, is it too early to even think about Thanksgiving travel and holiday airfare? No, not really.

But it is a bit soon to purchase your plane tickets.

When to Shop Isn’t When to Buy

Historically the best time to start shopping for holiday travel tickets (but not necessarily buying) has been in late August and early September – however, I must say that buying really early – actually purchasing your airfare – can be a bit tricky.

Let me be clear: no matter when you buy, you are going to pay a premium for holiday tickets because airlines feast on high-demand travel periods. The trick is getting yourself what I like to call a “better bad deal” – and when to shop and buy is critical. Sure, there are fall sales out there now, but notice they do not include departures after mid-November.

Sometimes – rarely – there are weird flukes in holiday travel pricing, and here’s an example: In the late summer of 2008, oil prices zoomed to $145 a barrel and were predicted to go much higher. Many savvy air travel shoppers bought Thanksgiving tickets early to avoid the ever-higher fuel surcharges the airlines were adding. Passengers essentially became fuel hedge speculators.

Unfortunately for the early birds of ’08, oil prices began to crash, even as the economy started softening, and procrastinators were able to snap up cheap holiday tickets at the last minute.

I don’t expect that this year – airlines are packing planes to capacity with fewer seats being flown. I think holiday travel for 2010 will look very similar to last year, so it might be good to review our 2009 holiday travel buyer’s guide and purchase by early October.

Wrath of Grandma

As you tinker with your plan to score airline ticket bargains in the next couple ofmonths,weigh the risk of shopping too early and paying too much for holiday travel vs.waitingtoo long and finding you can’t afford the expensive last minute airfare (if, in fact, you can find a ticket at all) and – facing the wrath of the family matriarch. Visions of being chased with a rolling pin come to mind.

I have on my “reminders” listto start looking at holiday airfare in August, justto see what prices are doing -and to start getting serious about buying during September. And do sign up for FareCompare’s real-time airfare alerts. Airfare geeks like me love to use technology to do all the hard work of alerting us on price drops.

When to Fly for Thanksgiving Travel

Some things to be thinking about now, especially – how to get the cheapest flights available for Thanksgiving. We’ve got some tips:

1) Avoid Holiday “Peak Travel” Surcharges

Many airlines have added surcharges to this year’s holiday travel days, including every day from Nov. 19th through Nov. 29 – with one exception: Thanksgiving Day (Thursday, Nov. 25). If you must travel on a surcharge day, at least try to avoid the two most expensive days which are the Sunday and Monday after Thanksgiving (the surcharge on those dates is $30 one-way).

2) Fly on Thanksgiving Day

Fly on Thanksgiving Day itself (Nov. 25), and you’ll save. In fact, flying on most holidays is cheaper than flying on the days surrounding them, because nobody wants to fly on a holiday. But why not? Airports and security lines may be a breeze to get through, and if you fly early enough, you’ll be in plenty of time for Thanksgiving dinner.

3) Fly Early in the Day

Whatever day you choose to fly, get a dawn flight or a dinner-time flight or an overnight flight – again, the times most people don’t want to fly. These “unpopular times to fly” are generally the cheapest times to fly.

4) Consider a Connecting Flight

Nonstop flights are more convenient and nowadays you’ll typically pay a hefty premium for that convenience; but don’t limit yourself – check out connecting flights, as well as nonstops. You could save a bundle.

5) Pack Light to Avoid Bag Fees & Check In Early

Please, don’t check a bag – save yourself some money (and you could save $200 in bag fees for a family of four).

The trick is to pack light: Use a carryon and wear your heaviest clothes (don those boots and put scarves and mittens in coat pockets).

At 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds before departure, check in online to make sure you get in those first boarding groups that will actually have some bin space (be careful to pick flights on larger aircraft that can accommodate roller boards).

More Holiday Planning Tips: Food, Security, Taxis

Okay, let’s say you have your plane tickets and you’re ready to go; here are a few last minute tips:

Food: Pack a lunch for the plane and save on expensive onboard offerings. Remember on most carriers, water, coffee and soda are free. On the flight back, you’ll have those great leftover turkey sandwiches.

Security: People seem compelled to bring homemade jams and jellies and other somewhat liquid treats when they travel during the holidays. Don’t – airport security will not allow these things, and you’ll only end up spending more time in line.

Taxis: The airports are probably going to be mobbed; let guests rent cars or take a taxi.

I mean, somebody has to stay home and baste the turkey, right?

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Published: July 16, 2010