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Sure, Thanksgiving remains a good nine weeks away, and planning for the holiday might be far from your thoughts. But if you don't want to pay an arm and a leg for holiday travel, then now's the time to talk turkey.
SmartMoney reports that reasonable, early-bird Thanksgiving airfare won't last very long; fares during Thanksgiving week have already jumped 6% in price compared to 2011, according to CheapAir statistics cited by SmartMoney. Moreover, there has been an increase in the number of people traveling for the holiday in recent years. AAA statistics show that Thanksgiving air travel rose 1.8% in 2011 over the previous year. Another bump of that size this holiday season could result in thousands more travelers in the air, and in turn put added stress on consumers looking to land travel deals.
A little while back, we wrote about how the Airlines Reporting Corp. discovered that the sweet spot for getting the best price on a flight is approximately six weeks before the date of travel. Flights purchased within this time frame are "nearly 6% below the overall average fare" — at least when demand isn't at a peak.
The problem with Thanksgiving travel is that the demand for airfare on specific travel dates is extremely high. Most of us would love to arrive on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (November 21) and head home the Sunday or Monday after (November 25 or 26). But it's rare to find fare sales for those dates, and according to SmartMoney, many travelers have already begun to see flights on these days sell out.
So, despite conventional travel wisdom, don't wait to book your Thanksgiving trip; for the best flight deal, book your air travel ASAP. Even waiting for an airline fare alert via email needs a reality check when it comes to the ultra-high volume of flyers that accompany Thanksgiving and Christmas travel, says expert travel columnist Donald D. Groff. "Because everybody is so wired these days, as soon as a good deal shows up, it gets snatched up," Groff says. "When the bargains show up, thousands of people know about it instantly."
There's still one reliable way to get a relative deal on your flight, at least for the inbound portion: fly on Thanksgiving Day itself. USA Today reports that for 2012, November 22 fares will be about 30% to 50% cheaper than the most expensive travel days. As for a return flight, travelers might want to opt for Saturday, November 24; fares may not be rock-bottom bargains, but flying on that Saturday will cost less than the high-demand options of Sunday or Monday.
Another strategy that may help travelers maintain a moderate bottom line for their Thanksgiving plans is to consider flying into an adjacent airport. For instance, travelers flying into Midway and O'Hare airports in Chicago may want to consider landing in Milwaukee or Gary, Indiana as alternatives. It's possible that fares to nearby cities will be lower.
And while the popularity of Thanksgiving vacations make it more difficult to score a big discount, Groff still advises that airfares normally change (and discounts appear) shortly after midnight every Tuesday. So with the holiday just nine weeks away, it's certainly time to consider booking any Thanksgiving travel, keeping these tips in mind.