JoDee Winterhof still hasn't bought her holiday plane tickets.
Winterhof wants to take her two children, ages 7 and 4, back to her Walnut, Iowa, hometown for Christmas this year. But there's added pressure on the Washington, D.C., resident: Her parents' 50th wedding anniversary party is scheduled during the same visit.
If she can't use frequent flier miles to reduce her bill, she expects to spend $1,100 to $1,300 on three tickets. Because she wants to keep costs low, she plans to stick to her usual strategies of checking prices every few days and comparing prices at different departure and arrival airports.
"I always wait a bit and try to game the pricing but still get flights I want," she says.
She may not want to wait much longer.
Prices are going up
Holiday airfares appear to be going up, the result of the usual higher demand for airline tickets around the holidays, airline mergers, flight cutbacks and higher airline fuel prices. People are also being charged more to check luggage, for coach seats with extra leg room and aisle seats, making it harder to seat families together at the last minute.
Travelocity's airfare "price to beat" for Thanksgiving is $386 -- an increase of 9% over last year, according to the company's analysis of its Thanksgiving data. That's the travel company's average round-trip domestic airfare inclusive of tax.
This year's Thanksgiving fares "are $5 below our price to beat for July 4 of this year," says Courtney Scott, senior editor at Travelocity. "So while year-over-year prices are up, Thanksgiving fares are about what we were seeing this summer on popular travel weekends."
Do expect "peak travel day" surcharges of $20 to $40 each way during the holiday season, says Scott. Travelers may find lower prices if they don't travel on November 21 and 25, December 22, 23 and 26 and January 2, check multiple departure and arrival airports and book packages for flight and hotel.
If airline fuel costs continue to rise, "it should indicate a steady rise in (ticket) prices through the end of December and beginning of January," she says. "It's not a time of year where you're going to see incredibly deep discounted flights. Use our 'price to beat' as a gauge of whether or not you're getting a good deal."
People are willing to spend more
Demand doesn't appear to be letting up. Some 84 million Americans say they are traveling this holiday season, up 7% from last year, according to recent data from the American Express Spending & Saving Tracker.
While some 40% claim that budget is the most important factor in their plans, the American Express survey found travelers will spend more on holiday travel this year: $65 billion or about $773 per person, up from $659 last year. (This includes airfare and other travel expenses.)
Some 42% of travelers also will fly to their destination this year (compared to 36% last year). They also plan to take longer vacations (27% this year compared to 23% last year), and travel to more expensive destinations (16% this year compared to 12% last year), according to the survey.
Travelers should jump on fares that seem reasonable, travel experts say.
"If the price is in the range we expect for the holidays and we actually can find the space we advise our clients to book it as soon as possible," says travel agent Michael Holbrook of Columbus Travel/Preferred Vacations in Georgia.
Still ways to save?
Flexible travelers may still find ways to save, says Brian Kelly, founder of thepointsguy.com.
"Most airlines will let you book or put a fare on hold and cancel by midnight the next day for free," he says. "Put it on hold or book it, and if it goes down the next day, then book the lowest fare. You can keep doing that until the fare goes down." (If it does, that is.)
Remember that certain airlines don't charge for checked bags and some airline credit cards may offer free checked baggage for cardholders. (Don't forget the presents!)
Consider an upgrade. "Coach may be packed but this may be the time to upgrade" because business travelers tend to stay home over the holidays. "You'll go online and see your flight is double the amount of miles usually charged, but you may be able to get first or business class for that same amount of miles," says Kelly.
Plan ahead next year
And there's always the takeaway lesson: put buying airline tickets on your calendar a few months before the holidays to try to get a decent fare next year. It may pay to plan ahead.
That's what Joseph Vasquez of Manhattan did this year. He and his partner bought tickets to visit family in Chicago for Thanksgiving. Purchased on August 20, each plane ticket cost $325.60. On the same airline today, the tickets would cost $538. Their savings: $212.40 per ticket.
Holbrook recommends booking even earlier.
"Most holiday travelers purchase their tickets and make their reservations 9 to 12 months in advance," he says. "In fact at many resorts they make next year's deposit before they leave this year, and then when the airfares come out, they usually book early."