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No airline ticket yet? Good luck

Many popular flights are nearly full or very expensive. Being flexible on the itinerary can help.

December 01, 2007|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

Are you planning to fly for Christmas but haven't booked a ticket yet? Unless you're expecting a big year-end bonus, better hop to it.

With three weeks left before one of the busiest times for air travel, popular flights are already full or very expensive because savvy travelers picked off seats and airfare bargains earlier than ever -- some booking flights as early as summer.

"Early birds have gotten the worm," said Amy Ziff, editor at large for Travelocity.

Chris McGinnis, editor of Expedia Travel Trendwatch, said people started booking heavily in early October after experiencing lots of travel problems over the summer. "After what happened last summer -- with the crowds, the sellout and not getting on the flights they wanted -- people thought about booking trips earlier."

Christmas has always been one of the more expensive times for air travel, but U.S. airlines haven't added much capacity even though more people than ever are expected to fly this year.

At the same time, fuel costs have jumped, leading to fare increases. Ziff estimated that the average fare for travel during Christmas week is up 7.5% for domestic flights and 13% for international flights compared with last year.

But travel agents say don't despair because there are still deals to be had, though they are harder to find and may require passengers to be more flexible about when they fly, and from which airport.

Which days are the best for fares? Brian Ek, spokesman for, said you'll find the cheapest tickets if you fly on Dec. 19, 24, 26, 27 or 28. You'll pay the most for a ticket if you fly Dec. 21, 22 or 30 or Jan. 1, 2, 4 or 5, he said.

"The best advice for people who want to book a cheaper ticket is to be flexible, particularly with the departure date. It has the largest effect on prices," said John Rauser, a "fareologist" for, a travel service that tracks ticket prices.

Farecast found that the cost of traveling from Los Angeles International Airport to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport during Christmas week had more than doubled since fall.

A nonstop, round-trip flight, departing on one of the busiest days -- Friday, Dec. 21 -- and returning a week later was selling for $339 in early October. By this week, it had jumped to about $730.

But if travelers are flexible, the fare difference can be dramatic. A round-trip flight from LAX to JFK dropped to $389 if the passenger was willing to travel Christmas Eve and return on New Year's Eve. The catch: Departures were all red-eye flights arriving in New York on Christmas.

If you must travel on the busiest days, consider flying out of an alternative airport or taking a flight with a stopover. A flight from Orange County's John Wayne Airport to New York's LaGuardia with a stopover in Atlanta -- departing Dec. 21 and returning a week later -- was selling for $309 at Delta Air Lines last week.

Another strategy is to have fares monitored via computer and pounce when prices drop temporarily. Services such as, as well as other online travel sites, can monitor the price of flights you might want and alert you by e-mail when they drop.

There were four days in the last two months on which fares for nonstop LAX-JFK flights on Dec. 21 dropped by more than $100. On Nov. 11, for instance, the same flight fell by more than $115, to $409, before jumping back up to more than $500 and steadily rising. On Friday, American Airlines briefly lowered its fare for the New York flight by more than $200, to $520, but only a handful of middle seats were available.

If all else fails, turning to a travel agency might make sense. On Wednesday, online travel search engines quoted fares ranging from $730 to $856 for the Dec. 21 New York trip. The search took about 30 minutes.

But within a minute, Barbara Katz, manager of the TravelStore in Long Beach, found a fare for about $680 on a new airline, Virgin America, which can't be booked with most online travel services. Agents typically charge about $35 per transaction while online services tack on $5 to $10.

"We are getting more clients who thought they could do it themselves online but get frustrated," Katz said. "We have the know-how and tricks of the trade you can't get online."

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