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5 tips for booking Thanksgiving flights

By A. Pawlowski, CNN
updated 1:18 PM EDT, Tue November 1, 2011
Travelers head for their flights at L.A./Ontario International Airport in California on the eve of a past Thanksgiving.
Travelers head for their flights at L.A./Ontario International Airport in California on the eve of a past Thanksgiving.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Book your Thanksgiving flights as soon as possible for best fares and seats
  • Travelocity: Average domestic ticket will cost $376, or about 4% more than last Thanksgiving
  • Consider flying on Thanksgiving Day and try to avoid a Sunday return
  • Some extra fees may be worth paying to make the trip more comfortable

(CNN) -- Feasting on turkey aside, brace yourself for that other Thanksgiving ritual: joining a nationwide mad dash to make it to a family gathering and back in a journey that can exasperate even the most seasoned traveler.

If you're flying for the holiday, expect lots of company and few airfare deals.

"The airlines have eliminated tens of thousands of seats due to consolidation and just plain old capacity cuts and (they're) using smaller planes," said George Hobica, president of Airfarewatchdog.com. "So there are going to be fewer seats."

It's also a bit trickier to book flights for Thanksgiving than Christmas because so many travelers want to fly in such a small window of time: four days versus two weeks for many people who save vacation time for the big holiday in December.

The sputtering economy isn't keeping Americans from making the annual trek for Thanksgiving, said Melissa Klurman, contributing editor for Travelocity.

Finding low Thanksgiving fares

Those who will be flying over the holiday will pay $376 on average for a domestic ticket, or about 4% more than at the same time last year, according to Travelocity.

Here are five tips to make your journey a smoother one.

1. Book your tickets now

Last-minute sales aren't likely for one of the most popular times of the year to fly and seat maps are filling up quickly.

"Don't delay: Prices are not going to go down between now and Thanksgiving," Klurman said.

"Not only do you have a better chance of getting lower airfare, but also (better) seats. You can book your seat when you book your airfare. So if you don't want to be in the middle of the last row -- the early bird gets the window seat in that case."

If you're flying with someone for Thanksgiving, the chances of sitting together on the plane are also higher if you book early, Hobica said.

2. Look into alternate airports

Sometimes, it pays to look into flying in and out of airports that may be less convenient than your closest option. So you may find a cheaper flight out of Allentown, Pennsylvania, than Philadelphia, for example, Hobica said.

Be especially flexible if you're in a major city like New York, where there are several airports in the area, Klurman said. Travelocity allows fliers to search alternate airports when they're pricing itineraries.

3. Consider flying on Thanksgiving Day

Travelers who choose to fly out on the Monday before Thanksgiving and fly back on the Sunday after will pay on average $213 more than travelers who fly on Thanksgiving Day and come back the next day, Travelocity calculated.

Flying on the holiday also means much less crowded airports and planes.

"Have your turkey and then come back on Friday," Hobica advised.

Lest you think it's impossible to do, Hobica assured that plenty of travelers have successfully gone this route, "especially if they don't like their family or if they're sleeping on the sofa and the sleeping arrangements aren't comfortable," he said with tongue in cheek.

In general, avoid a Sunday return, Travelocity advised. If you are flying on Thanksgiving Day, try to take the first flight out to make sure you make it to dinner.

4. Give yourself plenty of time

Connecting flights are often cheaper, but with the possibility of winter weather causing delays or cancellations over Thanksgiving, you risk a missed connection, Hobica said. He suggests travelers fly nonstop whenever possible, but if you do choose a multistop itinerary, allow lots of time to catch your next flight.

If you miss a connection, Travelocity warns that with planes booked solid, it could be a while before your airline is able to book you on another flight.

5. Consider paying some extra fees to make the trip more comfortable

Hobica frequently flies JetBlue and he always pays a fee for seats with extra legroom, an option that comes with access to expedited security lanes and early boarding.

The choices vary by airlines, but several, including American and United, let you board early for a fee, thus helping you avoid the epic struggle for overhead bin space. It may be worth paying this extra charge during peak travel times, like Thanksgiving, to make the journey saner, Hobica said.

Another, more expensive option is to splurge for an airport lounge day pass, which can cost $30-$50.

"If you only fly once a year, sometimes the day passes are worthwhile, especially if your flight is delayed," Hobica said.

"They have free drinks in most of the lounges, snacks and shorter lines if you have to rebook your flight. ... It just makes the whole experience a bit more pleasant when you treat yourself well and get the perks."

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