7 Ways to Save on Holiday Travel

Bargains are scarcer this year, but you can fly the holiday skies for less if you use these strategies.

With plane fares for the holiday season heading skyward, travelers have little to celebrate this year. For example, according to Orbitz.com, the average price on a round-trip ticket from New York to Los Angeles for Thanksgiving -- from November 24 through November 30 -- went up 9% from 2009 to 2010, from $419 to $457. Traveling the same route between December 23 and January 1 costs an average of $504 -- 24% more than last year’s average fare of $407.

But you can still fly home for the holidays without breaking the bank. Here are seven ways to get home for less:

1) Buy your tickets now. Procrastinators, take note: With demand for flights hopping, airlines will skip the big last-minute fare sales they offered in recent years to fill their planes, says Rick Seaney, co-founder of airfare shopping site FareCompare.com. He estimates that each day you postpone booking your flight adds about $5 to your fare. For Christmas and New Year’s travel, book by mid November to find the best rates.

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2) Fly when others don’t want to. You’ll land some of the cheapest fares if you adjust your schedule to avoid the most traveled itineraries -- Wednesday to Sunday for Thanksgiving, and Thursday to Sunday for both Christmas and New Year’s. The holidays themselves or their eves are usually the cheapest days to fly. For example, the average round-trip domestic fare for the most popular Christmas itinerary is $403, according to Bing Travel. But flying on Christmas Day saves an average of $67 per ticket.

Bonus: Staying grounded on those busiest travel days will also save you the holiday surcharge some major airlines are adding to fares. Flights on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day are spared entirely from the extra cost. Otherwise, flying anytime between November 19 and November 29, and December 17 and January 3, will cost $10 to $30 extra each way.

3) Make your own holiday. If you can persuade your family and friends to celebrate outside of the peak time periods, you’ll not only avoid the surcharge but also score much cheaper fares. For example, says Seaney, families who gathered the week after Thanksgiving last year paid 50% less for their plane tickets than traditional holiday observers.

4) Keep an eye on your fare, even after you buy. Most airlines and online travel agencies will give you a rebate -- usually in travel credits or vouchers -- if your flight’s price drops below what you paid. Just be wary of fees: Some airlines charge “re-booking” fees between $50 and $175 for domestic flights and up to $250 for international flights. Alaska Airlines and JetBlue do not charge to refund price drops; Southwest never charges a ticket-change fee and will credit you the full difference in fare.

For help tracking your specific flight’s price, go to Yapta.com. The site will send you alerts via e-mail or Twitter as soon as it catches a price drop. You can choose to be notified when the fare falls $5, $10, $25 or $50. Plus, the site will do the math for you with regard to those pesky ticket-change fees. If your refund outweighs the fee, Yapta will tell you how to collect your travel voucher. Note: Yapta does not currently track Southwest’s flights, so you’ll have to keep an eye on the airline’s fares yourself. Or you can enlist help from Airfarewatchdog.com, which does keep Southwest fares on its radar -- you won’t be able to track your exact flight, but you can specify your city-to-city route.

5) Gobble up a last-minute “turkey fare.” These rare birds are what industry insiders call deeply discounted plane tickets, designed to fill unsold seats at the 11th hour. If you’re still ticket-less shortly before the holidays and fares for your desired flights are in the $700-to-$800 range, “it’s probably not going any higher than that,” says Seaney, “so it might be worthwhile to wait a couple more days and see if those turkey fares come out.” If you see fares closer to $400 or $500, nab them.

You’ll find out quickly about those lower fares if you sign up for fare alerts from sites such as Kayak.com, Airfarewatchdog.com and FareCompare.com. At FareCompare, you can also sign up for Twitter feeds that signal when prices drop on flights from your airport of choice.

6) Book a bundled trip. Because travel agencies lock in lower rates early, some last-minute packages might cost less than the airfares themselves. If you don’t plan to use the hotel portion of your deal, just check that you won’t incur a fee for not showing up.

7) Ship your extra luggage. Checking just one bag can cost up to $45 each way, and three bags can cost up to $175. With Spirit Air, even a carry-on bag can cost up to $45 each way. You can find details on luggage fees charged by 30 major airlines at FlyingFees.com. For more information on mailing your bags, see Save Money By Shipping Your Luggage. If you end up packing your presents, remember to leave them unwrapped until after arrival, or airport security may unwrap them for you.

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Stacy Rapacon
Online Editor, Kiplinger.com

Rapacon joined Kiplinger in October 2007 as a reporter with Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine and became an online editor for Kiplinger.com in June 2010. She previously served as editor of the "Starting Out" column, focusing on personal finance advice for people in their twenties and thirties.

Before joining Kiplinger, Rapacon worked as a senior research associate at b2b publishing house Judy Diamond Associates. She holds a B.A. degree in English from the George Washington University.