Early birds aren't necessarily getting the best air fares this holiday season -- and procrastinators can still end up getting a good deal.
With lower oil prices and slumping demand for air travel, airlines are slashing winter fares, so much so that travelers who waited are finding some of the lowest-priced plane tickets in years.
The bottom line: It may not be too late -- even for the holidays -- to find an affordable air fare to visit family and friends. Just don't try to fly on days when everyone else is taking off.
"Forget the early bird getting the worm," said Tom Parsons, chief executive of travel website Bestfares.com. "There is no reason to buy tickets in advance anymore."
It used to be -- and many airlines continue to push the idea -- that travelers who bought plane tickets early got the best deals because fares typically increased as the departure date got closer.
Indeed, buying a ticket at the airline counter a few hours before the flight can cost two to three times more than a ticket purchased in advance. It's the price business travelers and harried passengers have to pay.
But with the economy in recession, flights to certain cities on certain days during the holidays still have empty seats -- and that's despite airlines cutting back.
In November, big U.S. carriers reduced capacity by 7%, but passenger traffic fell by 10%, which meant that planes still had empty seats. Airline analysts are expecting a repeat in December.
"There's still plenty of availability -- and some great prices on holiday airline tickets," said Brian Ek, spokesman for online travel agency Priceline.com. "We took a look at fares and found that depending on the route and travel dates, fares can be down as much as 10% over last year."
Cynthia Stafford, a South Bay resident and owner of a small film production company, was surprised to find on Wednesday that a flight to New York during Christmas week had actually declined since she last looked a few weeks ago.
"It's pretty decent for last-minute," said Stafford, who decided to book the plane ticket. "With the economy in turmoil, it would make sense that airlines cut back on fares."
With fuel costs a third of what they were last summer, airlines also have a lot more wiggle room to slash fares. And with last-minute cancellations made by travelers who lost their jobs, some airlines are offering deals that require only a one-day advance purchase, compared with the two-week requirement that has been the standard for years.
"You'd be surprised how airlines are opening up cheap seats at the last minute," said George Hobica, founder and president of Airfarewatchdog.com. "If you haven't made plans already, you may be rewarded."
An example: A flight in late December from Los Angeles to Dallas dropped from $450 for those who booked in October to $269 for those who bought last week.
Bet Williams, a singer who on Wednesday was flying back to New York after performing in Los Angeles, said she was planning to visit her mother in Tampa, Fla., for Christmas after finding a round-trip fare of $240. When she checked a month ago, the fare was between $380 and $400.
"I couldn't believe it," said Williams, who just a week ago had been resigned to forgoing the annual visit this year. "I procrastinated so long I didn't think there would be any more cheap fares."
But don't expect to find deals on the days when everyone wants to fly. They're probably already sold out or nearly so. Fares for flights to smaller cities where airlines have slashed most of their service are unlikely to be reduced.
Hobica said to keep in mind that fares can vary day by day -- or even hour by hour.
Fares for flights from Los Angeles International Airport to New York's Kennedy airport can fluctuate widely even within the two-week holiday travel period.
Last week, a flight departing Saturday, Dec. 20, and returning Tuesday, Dec. 23, had the highest fare at $535 round trip. But if you departed a day later, on Sunday, Dec. 21, the fare dropped to $447, a savings of $88.
Departing on Christmas and returning Jan. 2 would save you even more -- the fare dropped by $160.
Better yet, put off travel until after the holidays and the savings can be dramatic. A barrage of fare sales began last week for travel in January and February, typically the months with the weakest demand.
A check of travel websites last week found fares for LAX-JFK flights after Jan. 5 as low as $294 round trip.
But what if you heeded the long-standing advice and purchased tickets a month or two ago and are now finding that the same seats are selling for less?
It's not something that airlines readily advertise, but savvy passengers can get some airlines to give them a credit for a future flight or even a refund of the price difference if they discover that their fare dropped. (This does not apply to changes in fuel surcharges, which many international carriers began imposing during the surge in oil prices.)