Turkey may be the centerpiece of Thanksgiving Day, but consumers who want to get home for the holiday should focus first on a different kind of fowl: early-bird airfare.
With a little more than five weeks before Turkey Day, experts say now is the best time to book for many travelers. Fares during the week of Thanksgiving are already up 6% compared with last year, reports CheapAir.com.
"The No. 1 factor that determines how expensive a flight will be is how full it is, and most Thanksgiving-week flights are already reasonably booked," said Jeff Klee, chief executive of CheapAir.
All of this demand is set against a backdrop of high-load factors: Domestic flights have been almost 83% full through the first six months of 2012. That number has been creeping steadily upward in the last few years — meaning flights are much fuller than they've been. In 2001, for example, flights were running about 69% full. (Incidentally, in November 2011, the load factor spiked to 83%.) These stats, from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, mean you have little flexibility if a flight is canceled (think bad weather in November or labor issues) or, heaven forbid, you miss your flight.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. For those who are booking now, fares will go up as the cheaper seats sell out and the desirable flights fill up. (Airlines practice something called yield management — that is, the more sought-after the seat, the higher the cost.)
Travelers with the least leeway to wait on booking are those who want to travel the Wednesday before Thanksgiving or head home the Sunday or Monday after (Nov. 25 and 26). Those tend to be among the busiest travel days of the year, which means that there are rarely fare sales and also that flights sell out early.
"If you're one of these people who really want a nonstop at the perfect time on Wednesday, you better lock in," said Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com, a fare-tracking site.
Experts say it's not uncommon to see last-minute prices that are 50% to 75% higher than typical fares for a non-holiday week. And the most desirable seats tend to sell out first.
For now, though, passengers can still find deals. On a short-haul flight (500 miles or less), anything for $120 or cheaper is a bargain, Seaney said.
It's also worth buying now if you see a mid-haul flight (500 to 1,500 miles) for $300 or less, or a long-haul flight (more than 1,500 miles) for less than $425.
Pricing is typically better on off-peak days, notably Thanksgiving Day and the Saturday after (Nov. 24), said Courtney Scott, a spokeswoman for booking site Travelocity.
Travelers may even see a few fare sales or other price drops if demand on those days is softer than airlines expect (yield management again). But choosing a cheap flight on the holiday has its risks: Cutting it that close could mean you miss Thanksgiving dinner if bad weather or another problem triggers delays and cancellations, says Klee of CheapAir.
Aim for an early-morning, nonstop flight if possible, and if you have to connect, try for a warm-weather hub that's less likely to experience snowstorms.
As open seats dwindle and fares increase, it's also important to test tried-and-true strategies, such as checking alternative airports and buying fares on Tuesday afternoons, typically the cheapest point in the weekly fare cycle.
It's a long shot, but travelers looking to keep costs in check might try redeeming their airline miles for a free or discounted seat, Seaney said. Airlines have made more award seats available in the last year, although demand is also higher during the holidays. For those seats, like other peak Thanksgiving fares, it's best to search and book early.