Air travel will be busier this Thanksgiving and more expensive the longer you wait to book a flight, travel experts and airport officials said.
The same is likely true for Christmas travel time. If what happened last year is any indication, Christmas week travelers can expect current air fares to rise 25 percent or more in the first week of December and more than 50 percent after Dec. 10.
Airlines for America (A4A), an industry trade organization for U.S. airlines, expects 25 million passengers to fly during a 12-day Thanksgiving travel period. A4A expects the number of travelers from Nov. 22 through Dec. 3 to increase by 1.5 percent, or 31,000 travelers per day, compared to 2012.
Planes are expected to be more than 85 percent full on the busiest travel days, which are the day before Thanksgiving, Nov. 27 (2.42 million passengers), the following Sunday, Dec.1 (2.56 million passengers) and Dec. 2 (2.36 million passengers).
Looking ahead, the travel website Hipmunk.com warned that air fares rise the closer to Christmas flights are booked, based on 2012 fare data.
“Airfare for Christmas travel (Dec. 22-29) in 2012 increased dramatically as the holiday approached,” the site said. “Travelers who booked between December 3-9 paid up to 28 percent more ($651 rather than $509 per ticket), and those who booked on or after December 10 paid up to 52 percent more ($775 rather than $509 per ticket)”
“There’s a strong increase in fares that becomes pretty acute by the end,” of the holiday season, Adam Goldstein, Hipmunk chief executive, told this newspaper.
There were times during the recent recession when travelers could sometimes save by booking late. That’s not the case these days, he said.
Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, calls it the “grandma effect.” Airlines know that people want to be with relatives over the holidays, so they raise fares to prices they believe travelers will pay.
Seaney also notes that airlines have cut capacity in recent years, so fewer seats are available. Couple that with the economic recovery, albeit a tepid one, and less willingness to stay home over the holidays, and seats are expected to cost more this year, Seaney said.
There are some travelers who flew over the holidays in recent years who won’t be able to get an airplane seat this year, he said. And while “low-cost” airlines like JetBlue may be more willing to add capacity, “legacy” carriers aren’t likely to do so, he said.
“There are just fewer seats in the air,” Seaney said.
Brian Ek, senior travel analyst for travel shopping website Priceline.com, agrees that prices rise fastest closer to the key holidays.
“For Thanksgiving, the strategy is depart early – and return early,” Ek said in an email. “The cheapest day to depart for the holiday is Nov. 21, when the average airfare is $336. Nov. 22 is a good alternative. Avoid the 27th, when the average fare skyrockets to $452.”
Fares Dayton International tends to less expensive. According to a recent U.S. Department of Transportation report, air fares at Dayton International Airport ranked 62nd among the top 100 average domestic air fares nationally for the second quarter of 2013. Air fares at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International airport ranked second-highest in the nation, while fares at Port Columbus International Airport ranked 45th.
“The good news for customers is that air travel costs less in real dollars today than in 2000, airlines are delivering strong on-time and baggage performance,” John Heimlich, A4A vice president and chief economist, said in a statement from his organization.
Also, A4A said that during the first nine months of 2013, the 10 largest U.S. carriers reported net earnings of $4.5 billion, resulting in a net profit margin of 4 percent – up from $312 million, or 0.3 percent, in 2012.
Fuel remained the largest and most volatile cost for airlines, accounting for 35 percent of operating expenses.
The best advice for holiday travel, according to air fare trends website FareCompare.com: Get to your gate early, consider paying early boarding fees, and avoid checked-bag fees if possible.
Travelers should be in the airport at least 90 minutes to two hours before a flight, said Linda Hughes, a spokeswoman for Dayton International. Check TSA.gov for items that can be brought on flights, Hughes said.
“I think the biggest thing is to prepare to be in the airport,” Hughes said.
Air fares by the numbers
$545: Average Thanksgiving fare in 2012.
$604: Average Christmas fare in 2012.
$378: Average domestic second-quarter fare 2013
$392: Average domestic second-quarter fare 2012.
Source: Hipmunk.com, Airlines for America
See how air fares vary across the nation’s top 100 airports at MyDaytonDailyNews.com.