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Goodbye summer, hello holiday travel. Tips for finding cheap flights, holiday deals

Posted by Melanie Nayer  September 29, 2012 10:49 AM

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We've only just said goodbye to summer and it's already time to start thinking about holiday travel. Yes, really, it's time. Airfares are rising almost by the minute and if you aren't paying attention, you could lose your seat on a flight home for the holidays (or end up paying a small fortune for one).

As I sit here, end of September, windows still open and fall finally settling in, I admit I'm having a hard time fast-fowarding to holiday spirits. And then I started looking for my own airfare to visit my family at Thanksgiving and was aghast at what I found. After a few days of serious searching I was able to find some decent deals. But these deals won't last long. The holidays have always been prime time for airlines to hike prices, and this year is no exception.

Get on your computer, dedicate some time to these tips, and you'll secure some deals for holiday travel:

Don't wait!
If you're of the belief that the longer you wait, the better your chances of getting a good deal, you're going to be in for a rather expensive surprise. Airlines have been jacking up airfares all year, and the closer we get to the holidays, the more expensive your flight is going to be.

Buy now and save yourself the frustration of a last-minute, even more expensive flight later.

Best time to buy: Mid-week
While you might have more time to browse on the weekends, the best time to buy flights is mid-week. Analysts say that Tuesdays at 3 p.m. is when you'll find the cheapest airfares (this is when airlines usually put seats on sale), but this doesn't always hold true for holidays. Most airlines have black-out dates the week of Thanksgiving and Dec. 15 through the end of the year.

If you're searching over the weekend and find a fare you like, wait until Tuesday and see if it drops a bit. If not, book the fare you find and consider yourself lucky.

Be flexible
This might be the most important piece of advice I can give you: be flexible!

The day before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year, and also when airline prices are at their highest. Flying on Thanksgiving morning or the Monday or Tuesday after Thanksgiving will generally save you a few hundred dollars.

I did a quick search on Kayak.com for airfares from Boston to Miami for Thanksgiving, using the two worst days to travel: the day before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after. The cheapest airfare was $642 and included one layover. Then I searched for fares leaving Thanksgiving morning and returning that following Monday, and fares dropped to $355.

Non-stop vs. layovers
You won't get any argument from me that non-stop flights are the way to travel. However, when it comes to holiday travel, non-stop flights are a premium. A layover isn't so bad, especially if you can save yourself some money.

I did another search for Boston to Chicago flights over Thanksgiving and found non-stops starting at $500, but one-stops as low as $350.

The key to the layover is this: leave on the first flight out in the morning. The earlier your flight leaves, the better chance you have of not running into delays that result in you dashing between terminals to catch your flight, or worse, a missed flight.

Buy a Package:
Hotel-airfare combos are often less expensive than buying separately. Sites like Expedia and Travelocity typically put combo packages together that can save you a couple hundred dollars. Keep an eye out for package deals, and sign-up for travel deal alerts, which will typically arrive in your email inbox mid-week.

Don't get caught by add-on travel costs!
Be smart when you travel and keep in mind all the extra travel fees associated with flying. Checked bag fees, upgrades and in some cases, even sitting together, can cost extra. Book your flight as far in advance as you can so you can select your seats, and if you can, pack in a carry-on. Checking luggage will cost you anywhere from $30-$100.

Remember to keep the carry-on size in check. Airlines don't mess around when it comes to the size of your luggage, especially on full flights. If you think your luggage might be too big for a carry-on, it probably is. Don't risk having to pay for checked bags after you crammed everything into a carry-on.

My advice: invest in a hard-case carry-on piece of luggage (I use the Vapor series from Tumi, but you can also get great pieces of luggage from Macy's and TJ Maxx). These cases were designed to fit overhead compartments, and since they're hard cases, you can't overpack (and thus expand) your luggage.

Use your rewards card
If you're a rewards member of a particular airline or hotel, use your card to book travel for the holidays. It's unlikely you'll get to use your already accrued points toward holiday travel – most programs have blackout dates – but you can rack up your points and use them toward a future flight or hotel stay.

Now that you're armed with the best tips for scoring holiday airfare this year, get yourself to the computer and starting searching. It might not feel like the holidays, yet, but they'll be here before you know it.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Melanie Nayer is a travel writer who spent many years in the newsroom before jetting off to see the world. Her goal is to bring readers the best insider information More »

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