Holiday travel deals are fleeting

Hurricanes, fuel prices cause rush to book flights early

October 13, 2005|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

Thanksgiving is six weeks away, but booking a ticket home might be harder and more expensive than last year because travelers concerned about rising fuel prices and canceled flights have beaten procrastinators to the deals.

Travel experts say the cheapest tickets on the most popular days are largely gone. They are advising people who still want to go home in time for turkey -- or even for Christmas dinner -- to buy tickets now and consider alternative dates, times and airports or even train stations to get better deals.

"Many of the low fares are sold out because people started booking once [hurricanes] Katrina and Rita hit and fuel prices went up," said Terry Trippler, who monitors airlines for cheapseats.com, an Internet fare finder. "You can still get a good fare, but you have to do some shopping and you have to be flexible."

He said fares in general rose only slightly -- an average of $40 to $45 round-trip -- from last year. That reflects jet fuel costs that spiked after the hurricanes knocked out some Gulf Coast refineries and strained supplies. But with many seats booked, travelers could find fares much higher than last year.

David S. Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a travelers advocacy group, said early booking was the norm before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the behavior returned as air travelers returned.

Air travel surpassed pre-9/11 levels for the first time last year, with 698.7 million people boarding planes. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that nearly 20 million more people will board this year, a new record. Still, Stempler said it's too early to say if a record number will travel for the holidays this year.

AAA, the automobile association, has not yet conducted its annual poll of holiday travelers. Last year, AAA estimated that 8.6 million flew fly for Thanksgiving.

In all, AAA estimated, 37.2 million Americans traveled 50 miles or more from home during the holiday last year, exceeding for the first time the number who traveled in 2000.

But a gallon of regular gas was about $1.96 this time last year, and dropped a few cents by Thanksgiving. Yesterday, the national average was about $2.85 a gallon.

Steve Andrews, a travel counselor for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said he has also noticed the higher number of people booking early and has even fielded calls from people wanting to know whether they should book next summer's travel now. He said no one knows what will happen with fuel prices that far in advance, so giving advice is tricky.

Airfare sales usually begin about six months ahead of busy travel times, and that's often a good time to book.

Complicating the situation this year is the dreary financial condition of several major airlines. UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines remain under U.S. Bankruptcy Court protection, and several carriers have announced flight cuts.

"There's definitely less capacity out there, and that's one reason flights are filling up faster," Andrews said. "Going forward, it's going to make it harder for people to get the one flight they want. Maybe an airline that had 10 flights a day to Atlanta now has only eight, but the same number of people are trying to board. And they may not have that late-night flight that used to be cheaper."

Generally, cities served by low-fare carriers such as JetBlue Airways or Southwest Airlines are going to have more service and lower fares than small towns and even some larger markets with service predominantly from large, traditional carriers.

Also possibly frustrating travelers are increasingly restrictive airline rules for frequent fliers that often black out holiday dates.

A spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, the largest low-cost airline, said no dates are blacked out, but this year there are fewer seats on each plane dedicated to frequent fliers. Those seats and the cheapest fares on the popular travel days the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after are largely already booked.

Whitney Eichinger, the spokeswoman, said some of the trend in early booking may be because of the Internet, which has become a much more common method of buying tickets. Most airlines now have online booking and give those customers a price break for doing the work themselves. Eichinger also said that savvy travelers now know to look for Web-only fare sales.

"Customers really watch to see when their travel dates go on sale," she said. "The lowest fares are gone pretty quickly."

Travelers who can't get the ticket they want during the holidays might want to consider going away on other days in November or December, one travel agent said.

"The week before or after the holiday weeks, you can get fabulous deals to the Caribbean," said Stephanie Gumm, owner of Holiday Travel Bureau Inc. in Ellicott City.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

By the numbers

$40-$45

Amount the average round-trip airline ticket has risen since last year.

720 million

Estimated number of passengers expected to travel by air this year.

8.6 million

Estimated number of people who traveled by air during last year's Thanksgiving holiday.

$0.89

Amount gas prices have risen per gallon since last year.

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