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It’s not too late to get a deal on a holiday flight

Travelers passed through airport security. For Christmas travel this year, you should get the cheapest flights if you book during the first week of December, Kayak predicts. Travelers passed through airport security. For Christmas travel this year, you should get the cheapest flights if you book during the first week of December, Kayak predicts. (Nick Ut/Associated Press/File 2010)
By Samantha Bomkamp
Associated Press / November 9, 2011

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NEW YORK - Haven’t booked your holiday flight yet? Smart move.

The cheapest fares for Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t going to the travelers who booked months in advance. Specialists say they’ll go to those who can take advantage of some last-minute deals.

In previous years, the rule was nearly always the same: Travelers who booked earliest got the cheapest fares. Those who waited generally faced higher prices.

This year, though, things are different.

Yes, fares are up and flights are fuller, but those who’ve waited until the last minute to book Thanksgiving or Christmas travel can still find a deal.

In a year when airlines seem to have the upper hand, you may wonder why airfares on US routes aren’t creeping higher as the holidays inch closer. The reason is airlines may have jacked some prices up too high, too fast. When that happens, airlines run sales closer to flight dates to fill the remaining seats on the plane.

For Christmas travel this year, you should get the cheapest flights if you book during the first week of December, airfare search site Kayak predicts. The average ticket price for travel around that time is about $433, which represents savings of about 6 percent, on average. In July, prices were as much as 27 percent higher than normal.

After prices peaked this summer, they began to gradually decrease in September. However, fares are expected to jump again starting in the second week of December.

You can also still lock in a fair price for Thanksgiving. Priceline says that the average Thanksgiving airfare has risen just $7 to an average of $407 in the past four weeks. That’s about 6 percent higher than last year.

For late December travel, the deals are even better. The average winter holiday flight price has dropped by 5 percent over the last month, Priceline says.

Of course, most travelers don’t want to risk waiting for a good deal over the holidays and risk not being able to afford a trip altogether. Airlines say that demand is solid, which means that a plan to put off a ticket purchase could always backfire. But it can be worth taking a chance.

This rule is only holding true on domestic flights. Kayak says the lowest international Christmas fares appeared in July and were about 16 percent lower than normal.

And when you do book, here’s another rule of thumb to keep in mind: Don’t assume that making a connection will lower the cost. According to Expedia, average ticket prices for direct flights around Thanksgiving are 20 percent lower than those requiring a connection. That doesn’t mean that every direct flight will be cheaper than a similar flight with a stopover on the same route though, so search carefully.

Also, comparison shop at multiple airports if you live in or near a major city.

Early morning flights are generally the cheapest and provide an extra bonus during the holidays: They tend to be on-time more frequently.