Bargains scarce, but savvy searching could reap rewards

If you’ve held off on buying your holiday airfare in hopes of scoring a last-minute deal, you’ll probably pay more than expected.

The window to get the best deals for Christmas closed weeks ago, according to industry experts who said the few deals remaining will likely come with conditions and restrictions.

“You’re not likely to get a good price,” said Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com. “Airlines are only putting up last-minute off-peak hours. You have to be willing to go out and shop for it.”

Seaney said the best way to have avoided the higher-priced holiday tickets was to buy early.

According to FareCompare.com, a flight purchased less than one week before Christmas, traveling from San Francisco to New York and leaving Dec. 25 would cost $401 — and that’s only if the passenger is willing to hold off on their return flight until Jan. 5.

A flight from San Francisco to Houston, leaving on Christmas Day and returning New Year’s Day, would cost $395, according to the site. A flight to Los Angeles from The City, FareCompare estimated, would cost $110 leaving Monday and returning Saturday.

“That’s horrible,” Seaney said of the current holiday fares.

Prices are not likely to drop, he said, because airlines have no incentive to discount the remaining fares on a full flight.

For those procrastinators who still need to book a ticket out of town, there are some ways fliers can ensure they are getting the best price for this time frame, Seaney said.

Third-party sites such as Orbitz or Travelocity negotiate prices in advance, he said. Booking a flight packaged with a hotel, even if you stay elsewhere, is one way to get a deal.

“Some people are looking at $800 or $1,000 plane tickets,” Seaney said. “Expedia or Orbitz could save you $100 or more by booking a hotel and just not using it. It still saves you money.”

Travelers also should be flexible at this point, he said, and be willing to travel the day of the holiday or several days in advance.

Travel consultant Terry Trippler said late planners still have a chance to find some good deals.

“But be prepared to be flexible and always continue looking,” Trippler said.

Additionally, late travelers need to monitor ticket prices and travel Web sites, and be ready to purchase as soon as a favorable flight is found.

“Have credit cards ready and purchase when you see it,” Trippler said. “Don’t hesitate because there are hundreds of other fliers looking at that same screen.”

What to expect

Sample fares from San Francisco International Airport:

$401 To New York, traveling Dec. 25 through Jan. 5

$358 To Chicago, traveling Dec. 25 through Jan. 1

$395 To Houston, traveling Dec. 25 through Jan. 1

$109 To Los Angeles, traveling Dec. 21 through Dec. 26

Source: CompareFare.com

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