Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Holiday travel 2010: 'Early bird gets the worm'

By Stacie Van Dyke, Special to CNN
Planes are expected to be especially full this year through the holidays.
Planes are expected to be especially full this year through the holidays.
  • Airline fares are 20 to 30 percent above last year's rates, and they vary day to day
  • The time to book for the holidays (or at the very least, shop around) is now
  • Be flexible on dates in order to avoid peak travel surcharges

(CNN) -- There are only 96 more shopping days until Christmas. This year, experts say, you should be shopping early for more than just gifts.

"Airline fares are 20 to 30 percent above last year's rates, and they vary day to day," said Tom Parsons of

This is not the year to procrastinate, according to FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney. "Travelers typically book in the last 30 days before the holidays, but they can't get away with that this year," Seaney said.

Travelers have to dedicate some time to shopping in order to get the best deal.

Airlines seats are likely to be especially tight this year due to high demand from people who didn't make it home last year.

"Grandma will hit you with a rolling pin if you miss two Christmases in a row," Seaney joked.

Plus, airlines have cut capacity 12-15 percent since 2008. Load factors on flights this summer averaged 87 percent and many flights on heavily traveled routes were even more crowded, according to Parsons.

This year the holiday travel window is narrower than usual since the holidays fall on weekends. Consumers normally have a 16 to 19 day window for travel, but with both Christmas and New Year's Day falling on Saturdays this year, the peak travel period shortens to 14 days, experts say.

The time to book (or at the very least, shop around) is now. Prices may go down if you wait until closer to your departure date, but Seaney and Parsons predict the opposite: Planes will fill up fast.

And if you're headed to Florida or another warm weather destination, you can bet that as temperatures go down, prices will go up, Parsons said.

There are a few important things to keep in mind when booking.

"The first mistake travelers make while poking around online is searching for more than one seat, even if you have multiple people traveling together," Parsons said.

If you're traveling with a party of four, the computer reservation system will give you the highest price of the four tickets in your search. So if three seats cost $200 each, but the fourth is $240, the $240 price will return when you search.

Don't forget to factor in peak travel surcharges. Most of the major carriers add $10 to $30 on top of published fares during the busiest travel periods.

Seaney and Parsons advise travelers to make every attempt to avoid flying on peak travel days in order to get the best rate possible. Many of these dates are also blackout dates for fall specials, so sale fares will be no good.

Days around Thanksgiving with added charges include November 19-24 and 26-29, with the highest surcharges on November 28 and 29. Around Christmas and New Year's, December 17 to 24 and December 26 through January 3 will be subject to peak travel surcharges, with $30 charges on December 23, 26 and 27 and January 2 and 3, according to Farecompare.

Be flexible on dates for the best fares. According to, the cheapest days to fly are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. The cheapest time to fly is typically the first flight out in the morning.

"Sundays are the absolute worst days to fly, and the worst time slot to try to book is the Sunday after Christmas through the Sunday after the New Year's holiday," Parsons said.

Short haul flights (like St. Louis, Missouri to Nashville, Tennessee) remain reasonable, with fairly similar rates through the holiday season except on Sundays, Parsons said.

"Travelers will have to search the hardest for reasonable rates from the East Coast/Midwest to West coast, and vice versa," he said.

Both Seaney and Parsons agree that flying on Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's Day is a wonderful option, if you can swing it. The Tuesday and Wednesday before and after Christmas tend to offer some better fares, along with the Monday before Thanksgiving.

"If you are more flexible and not traveling with kids in school, take your trip the two weeks before or after the holiday and you can walk away with some decent deals," Parsons said. You're likely to spend half the money, and hotels and car rental rates will be two to three times less expensive, he said.

If you need to travel closer to the holidays, try to return home before New Year's Eve. Coming back after the New Year's holiday is what really kicks up airfare, Parsons said, so if you do stay over New Year's, he suggests waiting and coming back the Wednesday after the holiday.

Traveling the week of Christmas rather than the following week could yield significant savings.

For example, a package featured on including two round trip tickets to Cancun, seven nights in an ocean-view room at a 4-star hotel, and all taxes and fees costs $700 per person ($1400 per couple) traveling from December 21 to 28, 2010. The same package traveling from December 26 to January 2, 2011 costs $2137 per person, or $4274 per couple.

Another way to find holiday savings: "Compare nearby airports, and look at package deals rather than booking separately if you need a hotel," offers Parsons.

No matter what you choose to do, with Thanksgiving a mere 66 days away, the main tip for holiday travel is to book early.

The "early bird gets the worm this year," Parsons said.