- The Washington Times - Monday, November 14, 2005

Flexible fliers will find best deals

Holiday fliers who found themselves snarled in long lines at airport ticket counters and security checkpoints last year will find more challenges this time: higher fares and more crowded planes.

The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are traditionally the busiest flying times of the year and big moneymakers for the nation’s airlines, which have lost $32 billion over the past four years.

This year, cash-strapped domestic carriers are trying to recoup their losses by continuing to reduce staff, squeezing concessions out of workers, eliminating their least-profitable flights and raising holiday fares by 11 percent to 15 percent over last year.

“Most airlines continue to have revenue problems brought on by high fuel prices,” said Dean Headley, a Wichita State University professor of marketing who co-authors a periodic performance review of airlines.

“With the low-fare carriers setting the price in many markets, good prices are available but hard to find,” Mr. Headley said. “Overall capacity reductions by airlines have resulted in fewer seats available systemwide than a year ago. People can still find some decent travel prices if [they are] willing to have a little flexibility on schedule, routing and airline loyalty.”

Bryan Hawk, a San Francisco resident, has encountered the higher fares firsthand. “I traveled last year for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, and will do so again this year,” he said. “I buy my tickets on the Internet and generally well ahead of time. This year, it is costing me about $75 to $100 per ticket more than last year, even though I am traveling to the same destination.”

Mr. Hawk, who flies on American Airlines between San Francisco International Airport and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport during the holidays, said he has booked his flights “on less desirable days this year to reduce the fare, but I am still paying more.”

Fares vary greatly from route to route and airport to airport, and also change drastically according to flight times. Harrell Associates, a New York aviation consulting firm, estimates that holiday fares have jumped an average of 11 percent this year from 2004.

Separately, a study by the Texas firm Sabre Airline Solutions just cited in published reports reported average nationwide fare increases of 15 percent over last year for air travel on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Industry observers who follow developments in commercial aviation agree that an unusual confluence of factors is driving holiday fares higher, but they say that doesn’t necessarily mean travelers can’t find good prices.

Terry Trippler, an airline analyst for Cheapseats.com, cited fuel surcharges and the need for struggling airlines to increase revenue as reasons for higher holiday fares and early booking of holiday trips. It’s not unusual for people to book holiday trips six months or more in advance.

Even so, he said, alert travelers can limit the damage to their wallets. First, he said, look for “turkey fares” — deep discounts for travelers willing to fly on Thanksgiving Day. “The airlines start announcing those sales right around now,” he said.

Beyond that, “you just have to be a little flexible” to find fares that are at least a bit below the maximum, Mr. Trippler said.

For Christmas, book a flight out on, say, Dec. 20 and plan a return trip on Jan. 1 or 2, he suggested. “Since Christmas and New Year’s are both on a weekend this year, that helps stretch it out.”

Following his own advice, Mr. Trippler said, he managed to avoid paying a listed $576 round-trip fare between New York and Miami by leaving a little sooner — Dec. 22 — than he originally planned and returning on New Year’s Day. He snared a fare of $222 — more than half off.

Although fares are definitely up, travelers can sometimes avoid paying top dollar by booking early, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a Washington consumer group.

“This year, we have had almost a perfect storm,” Mr. Stempler said. “There are fewer available seats, the cost of jet fuel is high, and people started booking back in the summer and even before the summer.”

To get the best deals, he said, “look for alternate days, like traveling on a Tuesday. Look for alternate airports. Try to back away from the Wednesday before Thanksgiving or returning on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.”

“Flexibility is key,” he said.

• Distributed by Scripps Howard

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