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How to save money on your holiday flights

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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, federal data show how dramatically “load factors” – the percentage of seats full – have grown in recent years as carriers keep a lid on capacity.

In 2003, domestic US Airways flights originating from Charlotte were 71 percent full in November and 70 percent full in December. Last year, US Airways planes from Charlotte were 87 and 86 percent full in November and December, respectively.

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, you can possibly save hundreds of dollars. If you can tolerate a longer dose of your family and 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.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport is heavily dominated by US Airways, which has more than 600 flights a day here. The airport is the 25th most expensive in the nation to fly from, according to government data, with domestic fares averaging $417 for a round trip.

The differences in flying from nearby airports were apparent on some fares this week. For example, a nonstop round-trip flight from Denver to Charlotte came in at $529 on US Airways. But from Greensboro’s Piedmont Triad International Airport, Frontier Airlines was selling nonstop flights to Denver for $357.

And if you’re flying to Washington, a flight to Baltimore-Washington International is almost certainly hundreds of dollars less than a flight to Washington Reagan National.

Of course, you trade time for money: Greensboro is a 90-minute drive from Charlotte, and BWI is at least a few Metro transfers from downtown Washington.

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, and you could lose your seat.

“If you look on Kayak and you see United is charging $300 and everyone else is charging $500, I’d definitely book,” Hobica said. “If you see something that looks good or reasonable, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it.”

Seaney said you can figure on adding $5 to the price of a 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. “If you simply couldn’t afford an $800 fare, you have nothing to lose if you wait and look a couple weeks before.

“That said, you’ll be leaving on the 6 a.m. flight.”

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.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041; On Twitter @ESPortillo
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