Planes are more crowded and fees seem to keep rising, but travel experts say ticket prices aren't shooting up this year, and with a little planning, you can fly affordably this holiday season.
"Our data shows ticket prices for Thanksgiving up about 1 percent compared to last year, which is less than inflation," Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, wrote in an email.
But cheaper air travel might mean taking flights at odd times or off-peak days, and even choosing flights to and from outlying cities instead of your final destination.
Don't bank on getting a guaranteed overhead bin. While planes are usually full around Thanksgiving and Christmas, data from the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics show how dramatically "load factors" — the percentage of seats full — have grown in recent years as carriers keep a lid on capacity.
In 2003, for example, flights originating from Lexington's Blue Grass Airport were 73 percent full in November and 70 percent full in December. Last year, planes from Lexington were 78 and 80 percent full in November and December, respectively. Similar increases in load factors are seen at nearby airports in Louisville and Cincinnati.
Here's advice from two airfare experts on how to fly affordably:
Pick unpopular days and times: Airlines price every seat as a function of supply and demand, and there's a lot less demand on some days than others. For example, most people want to leave Wednesday night before Thanksgiving and fly home the Sunday after, making these the most expensive days to fly.
If you're willing to give up some family time, flying on Thanksgiving Day and returning Saturday can possibly save you hundreds of dollars. If you can fly on the Monday before Thanksgiving with a return trip the Tuesday after, you also can save big.
"Usually Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday are the cheapest days to travel," said George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com.
Look at nearby airports: "Everybody suggests that, but people forget," Hobica said of the old trick of flying from a nearby, smaller airport instead of a closer hub.
The differences in flying from nearby airports were apparent on some fares Wednesday. For example, a nonstop round-trip flight from Lexington to Chicago O'Hare and traveling on the key dates of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday afterward, was $404 on United Airlines. The price was similar from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport ($406 on United, U.S. Airways and Delta Air Lines). But from Louisville International Airport, the price plummets to $278 on United and $288 on American Airlines; it's $222 on Southwest Airlines to Chicago Midway.
Though, you trade time for money: Louisville is about an hour's drive from Lexington.
Check airline websites often: "The main advice is to look constantly," Hobica said.
He tells people to keep windows open on their browser, and hit "refresh" often throughout the day to see whether the price of a flight changes.
Undeclared sales can last for only a few hours on each route. One seat at a lower fare class could open up due to a canceled reservation.
Hobica also advises people to look on the airlines' websites, not just flight aggregators such as Kayak and Orbitz. Some airlines, such as Southwest, offer bookings only on their own sites. And an airline's website will always have the most up-to-date information, Hobica said, because the travel websites have to crawl the airline's websites to get their data.
There's no perfect time to book before a flight, Hobica said.
"To presume there's a magic time, like 60 days ahead, that's ridiculous," he said.
Don't hesitate to grab a deal: If you spot a deal — or even what you think is a reasonable fare — book it fast, Hobica said. You're not likely to get anything better by holding out.
"If you look on Kayak and you see United is charging $300 and everyone else is charging $500, I'd definitely book," Hobica said.
Seaney said you can figure on adding $5 to the price of your flight for each day you wait to book between now and November.
Wait, if you must: On the other hand, if every flight you can find is too expensive for you to afford — or if the prices are so high you're considering driving instead — don't give up. Instead, consider waiting a bit, Hobica said.
"Sometimes, two weeks before the holidays the airlines relent and lower fares," he said.
Don't go crazy: Airline pricing is a phenomenally complicated business, with millions of seats priced and re-priced constantly based on availability, demand and competition.
"They're changing constantly," Hobica said of airfares, which might be parceled out in 20 price classes for different blocks of seats on every plane. "They adjust the number of seats available in all fare classes throughout the day."
In the end, Hobica said, there's no way to game the system. The best advice he has is dogged persistence.
"There's no magic bullet," Hobica said. "You can't second-guess these people."