Prices are up and planes are packed, but more holiday travelers this year are waiting until this month to book a flight home for the holidays.
Those who monitor fares say consumers increasingly believe the Internet will enable them to wait until the last minute and, with a little effort, find a deal. It might not be the cheapest flight of the year and they might have to board on Christmas Day, but many people are willing to gamble that there will be a seat at a price they are willing to pay.
Many know the usual tricks to finding a good price, such as using alternative airports and being flexible about travel times. But fare watchers also say the procrastinators can benefit this year from airline holiday sales and some specially negotiated vacation packages.
Many travelers still do book way in advance, but a growing number either feel no urgency or are purposely waiting for those last-minute bargains, said Jennifer Catto, senior editor at Travelocity.com, the online fare-finder, which polled travelers and discovered that 25 percent are waiting until December in a pattern that is becoming more prevalent.
"Travelers have gotten savvy," she said. "They wait for the last-minute sales. It may not be the best plan if you definitely told someone you'd be there on a certain day ... or if you had your heart set on Hawaii. But there are certainly deals to be had. The key is to be flexible."
Airlines know some customers hold out, but they say this year the planes are filling up and they are calling on them to book now.
Catto does not believe that the record-breaking crowds, the higher fares or even new security rules will deter anyone from traveling this Christmas. About 3 percent more people were estimated to have flown this Thanksgiving than last, and fares were up about 15 percent.
Christmas fares are expected to rise as airlines continue to cope with higher fuel costs. Catto said her best suggestion is to look for a package, with airfare, hotel nights and maybe even a rental car, because it can save travelers hundreds of dollars.
She also suggested locking up a flight home or even to Europe in January or February because some of the lowest fares are being offered now for the slower months.
Those who just need a reasonable flight home for Christmas can still get that, too, if they look beyond their first choice in travel days, said Terry Trippler of MyVacationPassport.com a travel club.
Christmas falls on a Monday this year, so he said the heaviest days will be Friday, Dec. 22 and Saturday, Dec. 23 as travelers make a long weekend of the holiday. Dec. 24 will also be busy, he said. The most savings can be had by flying on Christmas Day.
Round-trip flights between BWI and Phoenix, for example, on Dec. 23 and Dec. 30 are going for $463. But traveling Dec. 24 and returning Dec. 31 brings the fare down to $291.
Some travelers seem downright laid-back about securing a flight for the holiday.
Veronica Reinoldo, a student at Morgan State University in Baltimore, said with a shrug that she hasn't gotten a ticket home to Sacramento. And Dustin Haworth, an area landscaper, said his family just got him his ticket home to Erie, Pa., this week and he did get the travel times he wanted.
Jack Sautter, a student at Vermont Law School, said he was waiting to learn his exam schedule and his girlfriend's plans before booking a flight to his mother's home in Missouri. He said airline Web sites and fare-finding sites like Orbitz and Travelocity will mean he can get a flight when he wants for a reasonable price.
"It might cost more than if I booked before now," he said. "I'm paying for flexibility. ... But honestly, I can use the Internet and within five minutes I can check all the area airports. I'll find something good. The Internet means I don't have to worry about it."
Many airlines are offering fare sales to win the business of these travelers. Carriers including Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Northwest Airlines, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways are offering specials in December and into 2007, although some black out days or have limited seats at those prices around the holidays.
Whitney Eichinger, a spokeswoman for Southwest, said the airline is offering a sale this time of year to fill the remaining seats during the holidays and to boost travel in the sleepy January and February months.
Discount carriers such as Southwest and AirTran, BWI's two largest carriers, frequently reward customers who book online with cheaper fares, pushing more customers to their Web sites.
AirTran's Internet bookings are up about 2 percent this year, to 60 percent of all bookings, said Judy Graham-Weaver, an AirTran spokeswoman.
The airline's sale is available to all customers, although the week between Christmas and New Year's has been blacked out. Nonetheless, she expected all the December seats would fill.