Are you flying home this Thanksgiving? You’re not alone. In fact, 24 million Americans will take to the sky during the 2012 Thanksgiving holiday season on planes that are expected to be a lot more full than usual.
The nation’s airlines anticipate the number of passengers traveling from Friday, Nov. 16, through Tuesday, Nov. 27, to increase by about 150,000 people compared with the same period last year, according to industry trade group Airlines for America. Though there will be less people in the air this year than there were during the peak pre-recession travel years of 2006-2007, carriers will pack travelers in tight using less planes than usual in an attempt to match available seats to demand and offset what are expected to be record annual jet fuel costs.
Airlines for America estimates that each flight will be close to 90 percent full on the busiest travel days, which are traditionally the Wednesday before and Sunday and Monday after Thanksgiving. On each of those days, roughly 2.3 million Americans will travel by air, and airlines are encouraging passengers to review the status of their flight and check in electronically before heading to the airport.
Many traditionally think of Christmas as the busiest holiday travel season, but while it’s a close second, Thanksgiving sees the most travelers. Yet, despite predictions of nearly full planes, a Hotwire survey out Wednesday revealed that some 78 percent of travelers had not yet booked their flights, hotels and car rentals as of Oct. 26.
Hotwire Group President Clem Bason cautioned that prices are rising each day.
“Thanksgiving airfare and hotel prices are up compared to last year, and they’re likely to increase even more as we get closer to the holiday,” he said, adding that “booking last minute travel can be risky during these busy times, but it’s not impossible to nab a deal.”
Traditionally, airlines begin hiking fares after Halloween. With fewer flights this year that last year and more people wanting to fly, Bason believes it may be harder for procrastinators to find airfares at the price point they are looking for. He suggests looking for flights at alternate airports like Baltimore (for Washington, D.C.), Oakland (for San Francisco) or Ft. Lauderdale (for Miami), or booking travel early Thanksgiving Day or late on Black Friday, when less people fly than usual.
Courtney Scott, senior editor at Travelocity, also noticed that people are booking later this year but said that while the average round-trip domestic airfare is up nearly 9 percent at $386, it’s still below what people paid during peak travel times in the summer.
“The average domestic airfare for the holiday is about $5 below what we were seeing for the July 4 holiday,” Scott explained. “So while year-over-year prices are up, Thanksgiving fares are about what we were seeing this summer on popular travel weekends.”
For those looking to snag a car at a bargain, Bason recommends checking the rates for rentals away from major international airports, where they tend to be more expensive. For a hotel, Bason says procrastinators may be in luck. Because many stay with families over Thanksgiving, hotels will offer empty rooms at a steep discount if you book on the spot.
For everything else, both Bason and Scott recommend you book now.