Sticker shock: Holiday airfares surge

Travel over the holidays can cost 15 percent more this year as demand eats up limited supply of cheap seats.

By Chris Isidore, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- With Thanksgiving almost here, not only is it tough to find bargain airfares to get home for turkey, but cheap seats are getting tougher and tougher to find for Christmas as well.

Travel experts say that strong demand for seats during the holidays means fares for those periods are rising faster than fares overall. Increases of 15 percent over year-ago holiday ticket prices will be the norm, according to one estimate.

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That compares to a 10.8 percent increase in a measure of average fares over the first nine months of the year, according to figures from the Air Transport Association, an industry group. That's because of a combination of strong demand for air travel and reduced capacity at some carriers, especially those in or just emerged from bankruptcy.

Many passengers learned the importance of booking early over the summer, experts say, which means a bigger chunk of seats for the holidays, especially the lower-priced seats, are already booked.

"It's very very slim to none, in terms of cheap seats," said Tom Parsons, CEO of, about the Thanksgiving and Christmas travel periods. "It doesn't look like it's going to get better as we get closer to the holidays. What's left is refinance-your-home-type of air fares."

Parsons said that people looking for cheaper seats will have to travel on the less desirable days, such as the Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays themselves. But if a traveler really has to get to his or her destination the day before a holiday and leave at the end of the holiday period, that person is likely to pay more than triple what the same trip would cost during the nonholiday travel period.

Of course. paying more to travel during the holidays is nothing new. But this year it might cost a bit more than normal.

Sabre Airline Solutions, the airline consultant and software unit of electronic reservation system Sabre Holdings, estimates that Thanksgiving weekend fares will be up 15 percent over a year ago. Early bookings jumped 42 percent through Sept. 30, the most recent period for which data is available.

And with Christmas and New Year's Day both falling on Monday, peak travel days during that period are also getting very expensive, very quickly. Sabre estimates that those fares are already up 7 to 13 percent from a year ago, and they're likely to go higher as more travelers book early. Through Sept. 30, early bookings during the Christmas holiday were already 5 percent ahead of a year ago.

"Given the trends in summer and Thanksgiving, there is going to be more early booking for Christmas as well," said Vijay Bathija, a consultant at Sabre Airline Solutions.

Tim Smith, spokesman for American Airlines (Charts), said the increases being reported by Sabre are a result of strong early demand eating up the supply of cheaper fares rather than overall change in fare structure by the airlines.

"There's been no conscious effort to raise fares," he said. "The busiest days fill up the fastest."

But the airlines have been announcing more modest fare increases in the face of the strong demand.

Last week, after Smith commented on holiday fares, American and Delta Air Lines (Charts), the nation's two largest airlines in terms of miles traveled by paying passengers, raised fares $5 each way.

Continental Airlines (Charts) and US Airways (Charts) matched the fare increase Friday, and United Airlines (Charts) and Northwest Airlines (Charts) have since followed.

As of midday Monday, the fare hike seems to be holding, said Trent Smith, research analyst for

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