“I think it’s going to be one of the busiest we’ve seen in a long time,” said the retired Wichita State University marketing professor.
Headley credits — or blames — the strong economy. More people can afford to fly for the holidays and may even choose planes over cars, even on drivable distances. (Headley said travelers often switch from ground to air at the 450- or 500-mile mark.) To secure a reasonable fare, he suggests booking six to eight weeks in advance: That means early October for Thanksgiving and at the top of November for Christmas.
“You can still get a decent price,” he said.
For procrastinators, he said airlines sometimes free up seats or switch to a larger aircraft close to the departure date, but “there’s a risk with waiting.” Seats can disappear and prices can rise before your very eyes.
“I have been looking at an airline website and seen the fare change by more than $150,” he said.
When researching holiday fares, he recommends checking the third-party sites for an overview of prices and times, then going to the airline’s site to book the specific itinerary. If lucky, you might find a fleeting deal on the carrier’s site. (He compared the shopping strategy to visiting a department store but ordering directly from the manufacturer.)
Headley partly based his forecast on the Airline Quality Rating for last November through January. The survey ranks the airlines in such categories as on-time arrivals, involuntary denied boardings, mishandled baggage and customer complaints. Last year’s score was the highest in the study’s 27-year history, thanks to a decline in three of the four areas. (On-time arrival was the one problem child.) However, airline performance typically suffers the most in December and January, when inclement weather and a high volume of travelers can ruin a holiday with a Grinchlike vengeance.
To reduce the stress of holiday travel, Headley offers a few tips. Be flexible and willing to fly during off-peak times, such as on a red-eye, or on the special day itself. Fly early in the morning to avoid the domino effect that could knock down flights later in the day. In addition, in the event of a cancellation, you will have an entire day to secure a seat on another flight. For connecting flights, choose an airport with lighter air traffic (say, Chicago Midway over O’Hare) and more moderate weather. Also opt for a longer layover, in case your first flight is delayed. You don’t want to have to race to your gate like a running back.
A few days before your trip, confirm your itinerary, since carriers sometimes change flight times with little warning. Check in 24 hours in advance and arrive at the airport earlier than usual. To gauge the lines at security, install the Transportation Safety Administration’s MyTSA app, which includes crowdsourced wait times. If the airline overbooked your flight, know your rights. Add the Transportation Department’s
Aviation Consumer Protection to your holiday reading list, alongside “A Christmas Carol” and “When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People.”