To get the best holiday deals, experts generally advise travelers to book airline tickets as early as possible. However, anyone who has been procrastinating doesn't have to completely write off that winter beach getaway, obligatory visit to Grandma's house, or jaunt to Times Square to watch the ball drop — YET.
Here are some tips from experts on how to snag a last-minute holiday airline deal without breaking the bank:
1) Choose the best day to fly
"This is an unusual year for travel because both Christmas and New Year's fall on Sundays," says Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, a website that helps travelers determine the cheapest time to travel. "That's generally the most expensive day of the week to fly but this year those days are the cheapest." The very highest fares will fall on the Mondays after each holiday. Avoid flights the day before or after the holidays, he cautions.
"The most affordable days are Dec. 18, 19, 21 and 25," says Brian Ek, a travel expert with Priceline.com, a discount travel site. "You can find good (albeit not the cheapest) fares on Dec. 20, 24 and 31. Outside of those dates, flights around the holidays are going to be pricey this year."
2) Consider early morning or late evening flights
"Fly before 7AM or after 8PM," says Ek. "Airlines typically offer their most expensive fares when the business travel crowd is in the air."
3) Split up tickets for families or groups
If you request an airline quote for a family of four, the price for each person is likely to be more than the cost of a single ticket. Seaney advises splitting up purchases. Even if you wind up booking a single seat and then purchasing three more tickets are the higher price, the per-person price will be less.
4) Split up round trips
If you can't find an affordable round-trip ticket on the same airline, you can fly out on one airline and back on the other. "Often, you can put together a cheaper total fare by mixing and matching," says Ek. "Over 20% of the tickets we sell on Priceline are inter-line."
5) Select the cheapest airport
In cities with multiple airports, like New York, LA or Chicago, check prices at various airports. "Prices can vary dramatically," says Seany.
6) Harness online resources
Check out other flight search engines like Hipmunk.com; a simple interface allows travelers to fill in departing and destination airports; then a visual timeline appears showing alternative flights and price comparisons. Alternatively, on Google Flight Search, travelers can select a flight from a simple list of results and identify dates with the lowest fares. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter sometimes offer last-minute deals to followers.
7) Don't wait any longer
While it's probably too late for deep discounts and sales, at least you won't be completely gouged if you act soon. There's still more than 14 days before Christmas. "Be sure to pull the trigger before the end of the first week in December," says Seaney of FareCompare.
"As fares go up and leave some seats empty, we're seeing a good number of seats becoming available through our Name Your Own Price service," says Ek. Travelers save, but have to fly on any major airline that accepts their offer, departing anytime between 6AM and 10PM, and may have up to one connection each way.
The Bottom Line: When it comes to holiday travel, advance planning and flexibility always pay off.
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