Diani Matos won’t be going home to Puerto Rico this Thanksgiving. The 19-year-old Simmons College junior started looking for plane tickets over the summer, hoping for something in the $300 range. But when the best she could do was $580 for a round trip, she resigned herself to catching a bus or train to visit her cousins in New Jersey.
“I get sad when I find really high prices,’’ she said, “because I know I’m not going to be able to go home.’’
Travelers often suffer sticker shock before Thanksgiving and Christmas, when air fares skyrocket 30 to 70 percent above ticket prices during the rest of the year.
In Boston, the average domestic Thanksgiving week fare this year is $481 round trip, up 3 percent from last year and 2 percent from 2008, according to the travel booking site Expedia.com. Thanksgiving prices at Logan International Airport are 6 percent higher than they are nationwide, with the average domestic flight at $455
Advertised Christmas fares from Logan are 3 percent higher than the national average. The average ticket price out of Boston is $477, compared to $464 nationally. The Boston fare is up 6 percent from last year and 16 percent from 2008.
“There is no such thing as a good deal around the holidays,’’ said Rick Seaney, of the air fare search site FareCompare.com.’’
After falling during the economic downturn in 2009, air fares have surpassed prerecession levels as carriers have cut flights and eliminated seats. This year, airlines have cut capacity by as much as 4 percent, increasing demand for the available seats and giving carriers the power to increase prices.
Nearly 24 million travelers are expected to fly between Nov. 16 and Nov. 27, a 1 percent increase from last year, according to Airlines for America, an industry group. In Boston, nearly 1.1 million passengers are expected to pass through Logan during that period.
Such a crush means that when flights are delayed by weather or computer glitches similar to the one United Airlines experienced Thursday, it has a bigger impact.
The capacity cuts have been concentrated on domestic flights, which affects travel around the holidays, said Courtney Scott, senior editor at Travelocity.com. Airlines are operating at more than 85 percent of capacity — meaning jam-packed cabins for all but the most undesirable flights.
Higher fuel costs are also prompting airlines to increase fares to protect profits. The price of jet fuel is hovering near its record annual average high of $3 per gallon.
During most of the year, Logan boasts lower ticket prices than the rest of the country because of competition from low-cost carriers such as JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines. But Thanksgiving fares are consistently higher in Boston, a city overflowing with college students who are flying home for the holidays.
“It’s pure demand,’’ said Edward Freni, director of aviation at the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan. “If the demand is there, airlines will raise their fare.’’
The best way to get a decent holiday fare is to book early, analysts say. But apparently this is tough advice to follow. Nearly 80 percent of Americans planning to travel over Thanksgiving had not booked airline seats, rental cars, or hotels as of Oct. 26, according to a survey by the travel site Hotwire.com.
After Nov. 1, each day waiting to book a ticket costs $5 to $10, said FareCompare’s Seaney. Christmas fares start going up by the same amount in late November.
“I’m usually the type of person who tracks a fare for a really long time and then books at the last minute, but not for the holidays,’’ said Travelocity’s Scott.
Other time-honored tips to bring costs down: Avoid flying on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when 2.3 million people are expected to crowd the nation’s airports, and on the Sunday after, when 2.4 million travelers return home. The Monday after isn’t much better; 2.3 million will be in the air.
The slowest day is Thanksgiving, with 1.3 million showing up just in time for turkey.
Even though she can’t afford to fly home for Thanksgiving, Matos, the Simmons College student, won’t be alone. Her mother found a $317 round-trip ticket on JetBlue from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Boston and is sending Matos’s 17-year-old sister to visit next week.
Ironically, Matos is now looking for plane tickets so she and her sister can spend Thanksgiving with cousins in New Jersey, because the train is sold out. She found a $100 round-trip fare on JetBlue, but when she refreshed the Web page, the price had doubled.
“I think I’m going go have to work overtime this weekend so I can save money so I can afford my ticket,’’ she said. “We want to be with family.’’
GROUNDED — Thousands of travelers were delayed Thursday by another computer problem at United Airlines — its third major outage this year. Passengers at Logan Airport in Boston had to wait as long as two hours to take off. Above, airline employees waited for things to get back to normal at O’Hare International in Chicago. B7