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Why you need to buy your holiday airline tickets now

Go ahead and scoff at retailers already pushing Thanksgiving-themed table ware and Christmas ornaments. Wait much longer to buy holiday plane tickets, however, and you may not have much money left over to purchase anything else.

Shopping early is the key to finding the lowest holiday air fares -- and it’s already getting late. The least expensive fares are already gone, according to Orbitz, which found the lowest fares for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve travel were offered between Oct. 5 and Oct. 10.

“I’d buy right now,” said Anthony Melchiorri, host of two shows on the Travel Channel and founder of consulting firm Argeo Hospitality. “Don’t take the risk of the holiday getting any closer because you may not find what you need.”

But don’t panic either, yet. Reasonably priced tickets are still available, and a little research and compromise can bring down costs significantly. Orbitz has created a calendar that pinpoints the best day to find lower-price fares.

Start by pricing flights on sites like Orbitz, Kayak and Expedia. Unhappy with the results? Consider flying on different days.

Jeanne Tornatore, senior editor of Orbitz, said Thanksgiving fares are at their peak on the Wednesday before and the Sunday after the holiday. Travelers can conserve cash by flying to their destination on Thanksgiving Day. “Flights tend to be inexpensive, and the airport is empty,” said Tornatore.

Flying from LaGuardia Airport in New York City to O’Hare Airport in Chicago on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and returning the Sunday after cost between $453 and $1,361 on Orbitz. By leaving on Thanksgiving Day and returning the following Monday, the price drops to between $276 and $1,248.

Explore fares to airports within 90 miles of your destination to find more lower-cost options, said Tornatore. The price difference can be so dramatic that it’s worth renting a car and driving for an hour or so. 

For example, flights from LaGuardia to Sarasota, Florida, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and returning on Sunday started at $752 on Orbitz. However, fares on the same dates to Tampa started at $557 -- a major savings, especially if multiple people are heading off to see grandma.

Tornatore also said flights with stopovers tend to be less expensive than their direct counterparts. And she noted that travelers booking flights on Orbitz get points that they can use on any airline, hotel or rental car company.

Despite such perks, the Travel Channel’s Melchiorri prefers booking with airlines directly. He said buyers may be able to get an upgrade or other bonuses from a direct agent. He added that it’s easier for travelers to change their plans when they’ve booked through the airline.

“Airlines don’t want you booking through third parties,” said Melchiorri. “Make sure you’re checking what incentives they have.”