Travelwise

Booking tickets for holiday travel getting harder, costlier

 

Special to The Miami Herald

Planning to travel over the coming holidays? You’d better make flight reservations as soon as possible.

“If you haven’t booked for Thanksgiving, you’re already behind the eight-ball,” said Gabe Saglie, senior editor of Travelzoo, an online publisher of travel deals. Indeed, travel experts say it’s getting late even to book flights for the Christmas-New Year’s period.

Several factors are combining this year to make holiday travel harder to book and more expensive than before. Fewer seats are available because airlines are using smaller jets to save fuel. Recent airline consolidations have reduced competition, leading to higher fares.

Another factor to consider: Holiday bookings are already ahead of last year’s, according to Steve Loucks of the Travel Leaders Group, which surveyed its network of almost 900 travel agents. That reduces even more the number of seats left at this writing.

“We anticipate holiday flights will be 90 percent full,” said Saglie.

However, even at this late date, you still can travel at less than top rates if you are flexible. The days of the week that you choose to travel can affect how much you pay and how many seats are available.

“Best days to fly out for Thanksgiving are the Friday, Saturday or Sunday before. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are not good,” said Mark Drusch of CheapOAir, an online travel agency. “Best return days are Friday or Saturday after Thanksgiving or wait until Wednesday or Thursday of the next week.”

As for Christmas and New Year’s, which fall on Tuesdays this year, Saturday through Monday flights before the holiday are going to be full, Drusch said. The pinch is likely to go on through the first few days of the new year.

However, traveling on the holiday itself — be it Thanksgiving, Christmas or to a lesser extent New Year’s Day — is usually much less costly and much more available, travel experts agree.

Experts also say you may be able to save money if you opt for connecting flights rather than a nonstop.

Of course, if you really want the best of all deals for holiday travel, a majority of the Travel Leaders Group agents surveyed recommended booking holiday travel six months or more in advance. That means start thinking now about holidays in 2013, including spring break (For non-holiday times, CheapOAir’s Drusch recommends booking at least 30 days out for domestic flights, 45 days for international).

While many people who travel over the holidays do so to visit relatives, others will spend their time in big cities, at resorts, theme parks or on cruises — and prices and availability vary considerably.

One of the most popular cities to visit in holiday periods is New York City. The city sparkles with decorations, department stores display unique windows, and special presentations like Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular draw thousands of visitors. However, hotel prices are likely to be high and availability low at those times.

“The week leading up to Thanksgiving and the week leading up to Christmas are good to get decent hotel rates, as business travel tends to drop off,” said Chris Heywood of NYCGo, New York City’s tourism arm. “However, the night before Macy’s parade and the period between Thanksgiving and the first couple weeks of December are usually very busy and there really aren’t hotel deals available then.”

If you have children, you know that any time school is out becomes a busy time for theme parks such as Walt Disney World. . If you have a choice, however, know that the week before Christmas is somewhat less crowded than the week after. Least busy time at the parks, by the way, are the weeks between Thanksgiving and the Yule holidays.

Cruises during the Christmas holidays traditionally are priced higher and sell out earlier than at other times. At this writing, for example, fares on the Carnival Glory sailing out of Miami on a seven-night Caribbean itinerary started at $399 for the Dec. 9 cruise, compared to $709 for the Dec. 23 sailing. Cruises over New Year’s usually are priced higher than those over Christmas.

Florida resorts tend to be busy during the Yule holidays, heavily occupied with escapees from cold weather. However, the weeks after Thanksgiving to mid-December are priced much lower. Rates at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, for example, start at $359 from Nov. 26 to Dec. 17 compared to $590 a night Dec. 18-25 and $720 a night Dec. 25-31.

Most ski resorts open around Thanksgiving, so eager skiers may be able to get in some runs during that holiday weekend. Prices are among the year’s lowest in the weeks after Thanksgiving and before Christmas.

The Christmas holidays, of course, attract hordes of skiers — local, national and international — which pushes up prices and lowers availability. Some luxe resorts charge as much as $500 a night at that time, according to Travelzoo, compared to as low as $99 in the low season. Good deals return in the first few weeks of January until high season begins late that month.

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