The first thing you should do is set a deadline. You still have some time to look for the best possible price. If you're not thrilled with current prices, check back several times a day over the next few weeks. But don't wait later than the end of October for Thanksgiving tickets or mid-November for the winter holidays. Prices are likely to rise precipitously a month out as the remaining cheap seats sell out swiftly.
Also, be flexible about travel dates. In recent weeks, major carriers put in place a $10 surcharge on high-traffic days throughout the year, including the Sunday after Thanksgiving and the days after Christmas and New Year's. Avoiding these fees comes down to flying on an airline that doesn't charge them, such as Southwest, or avoiding the high-traffic, high-fare days altogether. Try flexible-date searches on Orbitz and Priceline, which let users compare prices across several airlines and date combinations.
It's also best to skip skimpy hubs. To cope with reduced consumer demand, airlines have scaled back flights and switched to smaller planes so that every flight is as full as possible. For consumers, reduced seat capacity can lead to problems if a flight is delayed or cancelled: There are likely to be fewer (if any) open seats on comparable flights. Try to avoid connecting through a hub where flights are infrequent.
And book early flights to avoid delays. Between bad weather and airline capacity cutbacks, delays are inevitable. Book the first flight out, which is more likely to originate at that airport. Later flights are more likely to originate elsewhere, making them more susceptible to delays or cancellations because of weather across the nation.
Finally, keep customer service on speed dial. As airlines tweak their holiday flight schedules, you may receive at least one notification of a time or route change. It's also possible for a nonstop flight to morph into one with a layover. If that happens and the flight is no longer convenient, get on the phone with airline customer service. The agent may be able to switch your schedule without the usual change fee.
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by Kelli Grant and Jenn Eaker