Ways to save on last-minute holiday travel

@CNNMoney December 7, 2011: 10:50 AM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- If you want to travel anywhere over Christmas or New Year's, better book now.

Not only does it cost more to fly to most destinations this holiday travel season, but the deals and the flights are extremely limited.

The cost of the average domestic flights between Dec. 16 and Jan. 1 is already 5% higher than last year, while international airfares are up 6%, according to Travelocity. Over New Year's Eve weekend, domestic airfares are up 6% and international airfares have jumped 12% from 2010.

But that doesn't mean you still can't score a deal before the end of the year. Finding one at this point just requires a little flexibility and some swift action.

With increased demand for flights over the holidays, there is less chance of a last-minute sale, so travelers should secure tickets now before prices rise even higher, said Jasmine Kim, Travel-Ticker.com's General Manager.

A few airlines such as United (UAL, Fortune 500), American (AMR, Fortune 500) and US Airways (LCC, Fortune 500) may launch last-minute deals, but the routes will be limited, added Warren Chang, vice president and general manager of Fly.com. In addition, those advertised sale fares usually require up to a two-week advance purchase, which could leave many holiday travelers stranded.

"Most airlines have fares on sale for travel in January and February, with the December holidays already blacked out," he said.

Chang advises travelers to consider shorter flights to find the best deals this holiday season. On those legs, there are fewer blackout days and fares are significantly lower, he said.

For example, flights between Boston and New York can still be snagged for $40 each way on American Airlines, Delta (DAL, Fortune 500) and JetBlue (JBLU). Departing from Chicago to New York is as little as $51 each way Spirit (SPR) and flights from Phoenix start at $49 each way US Airways.

Another key to saving, Chang said, is to be flexible with your travel dates and to be willing to travel on the actual holiday to get the best prices. This year, Friday, Dec. 23 is one of the most popular times to fly, so look for flights on Wednesday, Dec. 21, or even Christmas Day instead.

In fact, travelers departing on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day will spend $17 to $144 less than the average airfare, according to Travelocity.

For even cheaper tickets, consider using nearby airports outside of the city center, such as San Jose or Oakland instead of San Francisco, or Fort Lauderdale instead of Miami, Chang added.

And be sure to sidestep those pesky baggage fees that can ruin any good deal. That means that travelers bearing gifts should take advantage of all those free shipping offers and send presents directly to their destination instead.

For the lowest fares, Orbitz senior editor Jeanenne Tornatore recommends opting for one connection or more. "If budget is your main concern you should definitely look at the one-stop flights," she said.

But if you are concerned that bad weather will spoil your trip, don't chance it, noted Kim. Remember the blizzard that socked the Northeast just after last Christmas? So do most people who were traveling that week.  To top of page

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