The holidays are just around the corner, which means the window for finding affordable Thanksgiving and Christmas airfare is rapidly shrinking. The good news is there are still some tricks to saving money and -- perhaps more importantly -- your sanity, on your holiday travel.
1. Book Now or (Stop Complaining)
The sweet spot for cheap holiday airfare has already passed. Plan to book now -- or at least by the end of October -- before prices really skyrocket. According to Kayak, after mid-October, airfares for Thanksgiving increased up to 17 percent, up a whopping 51 percent for Christmas, and up 25 percent for New Year's Eve.
Prices fluctuate through the week, and even throughout the day. History tells us that airfare generally drops early in the week. The key is to set a limit, stay vigilant, and if the price drops below that ceiling, jump on it. Here are some helpful tools:
• AirfareWatchdog emails airfare alerts based on your preferred route.
• Bing Travel's Price Predictor suggests whether to buy now or wait based on historical data.
2. Pick Smart Travel Days
The best time to fly is when everyone else...isn't. That means flying on Thanksgiving Day and on Christmas Day. It's ok, everyone can hold off on turkey for one day.
According to Orbitz, the average airfare on Thanksgiving Day is $406 compared to the $499 the day before. The Saturday before Christmas averages at $591, compared to $408 on Christmas Eve. Saturday, December 28 is the most expensive departure date of the holiday week, with an average airfare of $513.
Extend your holiday trip to return on cheaper days. Kayak has a helpful Best Fares calendar shows the daily average airfare for your route so you can pick the best inbound/outbound dates.
3. Be Flexible With Your Hotel
Hotel deals are far and few between during the holidays, especially in major cities. But there are some ways to save on your hotel. Don't stay over New Year's Eve and consider a non-traditional accommodation, like a vacation rental, instead of a hotel. Paying in full, in advance, can drop a few dollars off the total rate, and there's always the power of picking up the phone to negotiate perks like free Wi-Fi or free breakfast. Most importantly, know where the rates are trending high: Tools like Booking.com and Orbitz.com have years of data to let you know which cities have the highest rates... so you know where not to go.
4. Protect Against Delays
Booking a connecting flight? Protect yourself from potential delays and get on the very first flight of the day. Airline delays have a ripple effect that gets more difficult to recover as the day goes on. If there is a snag in your scheduled flight, you'll have more options while everyone else is just getting to the airport.
Stay ahead of the game with some helpful apps:
NextFlight lists upcoming flights in case of a cancellation
Flight Caster predicts flight delays, sometimes even before the airlines figure it out.
FlightTrack Pro has a live flight tracker, among other tools, to help manage travels in real time.
When all else fails, check out these time-killing apps for your tablet or smartphone.
5. Don't Check Your Bags
Worried about losing your bags during holiday travel? You're not being paranoid. Look at the reports of mishandled (lost, delayed or damaged) luggage over the past year, according to the DOT:
December 2012 - 4.15 mishandled bag reports per 1,000 passengers
January 2013 - 3.41 mishandled bag reports per 1,000 passengers
March 2013 - 3.05 mishandled bag reports per 1,000 passengers
May 2013 - 2.96 mishandled bag reports per 1,000 passengers
July 2013 - 3.68 mishandled bag reports per 1,000 passengers
Translation? December is a tricky time for checked luggage. Do yourself a favor ship them via FedEx, UPS, USPS, or any number of luggage delivery services. You pay a little more than the airline, but you also get a door-to-door guarantee... and no schlepping. How convenient is that?
6. Just Go Away!
Remember, other countries don't celebrate Thanksgiving. So while everyone else is elbowing their way onto domestic flights, savvy travelers can take advantage of low-season deals abroad.
Think Dublin in November, when flights on Aer Lingus are under $600 from JFK.
Don't forget our friends up north who already celebrated their Thanksgiving. Airfare from Los Angeles to Vancouver over the holiday is just about $300 per person.
Consider a cruise, with late November rates on MSC Cruises starting at just $700 per person to sail through Italy, Greece and Israel.