First, the bad news: finding deals on holiday flights — particularly at the last minute — will be harder this year than ever. There are fewer major airlines (five today as opposed to 10 a decade ago) and fewer flights and routes owing to money-saving consolidations or outright cancellations of unprofitable runs. What's more, oil prices have gone up, and the size of planes has gone down. The good news? There are still ways to get last-minute holiday flights without paying an arm and a turkey leg. Here are our tips for getting the best possible deal.
1. Do your homework
Spend time online brushing up on prices. Research fares that are offered by the airlines themselves as well as those offered by online travel agents and aggregators like Travelocity, Orbitz and Kayak. Check out comparison sites like Farecompare and Yapta, which can help to streamline your research. So can signing up for email blasts about airfare sales. Also, price out airfare-hotel or fly-drive packages, which often offer significant savings. Soon enough, you'll know a good deal when you see one. And, when you do, grab it — after carefully reading the small print, of course.
2. Mind those airfare add-on fees
These days, the price of a ticket is just the start. There are also baggage fees, ticketing fees, premium-seat surcharges ... the list goes on. Did you know that a family of four checking in one bag each can expect round-trip baggage fees to run from $200 to almost $300? It might be cheaper to mail holiday gifts and other items ahead of time rather than checking so many bags. Avoid ticketing fees with online e-ticket purchases as opposed to calling an airline agent or requesting a printed ticket. And do you really need to pay extra for a little more legroom in the emergency-exit seats?
3. Time your trip right
The cheapest day to fly is on the holiday itself: Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Eve. In general, Friday and Sunday are the priciest days to fly. During the holidays, the worst days are the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after it, as well as Dec. 21-24, Dec. 26-30 and Jan. 2-5. You'll pay between $20 and $150 extra for flights on these dates.