Just before Christmas 2008, the lowest tax-included round-trip airfare between New York and LA, leaving just before the holiday and returning the Sunday after was about $900 round-trip. But as this December 11, 2008 NPR radio interview revealed, had you waited and shopped around, a couple of weeks before the holiday the same route would have cost just $391 round-trip, on nonstop flights no less.
Will the same thing happen this year? Will the sky-high peak holiday airfares that the airlines are hoping you'll cave in to suddenly go begging? It's impossible -- and too early -- to tell. But if past years are any indications, it's certainly a possibility.
One thing's for certain: Thanks to airline consolidation and the elimination of thousands of seats, current airfares this year on average are higher than they were last year. But the keyword is "current."
How bad are peak holiday airfares as I write?
Some flights are just through the roof right now, and I cannot imagine anyone paying for them.
Here are some tax-included round-trip examples leaving November 24 returning November 27 -- in other words, peak Thanksgiving travel -- researched on October 25.
New York to Charleston, South Carolina: $960.
Boston to Dallas is almost $700, even on connecting flights!
Chicago to Los Angeles is much more reasonable $363.
Miami to Philadelphia is $363 on American but $473 on US Airways, which shows that all airlines are not selling at the same price, which is why your best bet is to use online travel agencies such as Expedia and Orbitz, which compare multiple airlines at a glance. These so-called online travel agencies will tell you if it's cheaper to fly out on one airline and back on another. The airlines' websites will not.
So what to do? Here are some tips to navigate exorbitant holiday fares.
One bit of advice is to fly on Thanksgiving Day and return the Friday or Saturday after the holiday.
That outrageous $960 New York-to-Charleston fare leaving the day before Thanksgiving and returning the Sunday after suddenly becomes $482 if you depart on Thanksgiving day at 6:30 a.m. (arriving in plenty of time for turkey) and returning the Saturday after the holiday. That's a savings of 50 percent.
Another tip is to shop alternate airports.
Although the current peak Thanksgiving airfare from Nashville to New York isn't a screaming bargain at $403 round-trip, it's a lot better than the fare from Chattanooga ($549). The airports are separated by an easy two-hour drive . If there are four of you flying, that's almost $600 in savings.
And it's still possible that these Thanksgiving fares -- and peak Christmas fares -- will go down.
A lot of airfare pundits are warning you to "buy now or cry later." I'm not so sure. True, if you're flying no matter what the cost, you don't want to wait if you're hoping to book your ideal flight times, leave from your preferred departure airport and get your favorite (i.e., no middle) seats.
But a better piece of advice, especially if you're not going fly if the fare is too high, is to shop, shop, shop. Maybe 2011 will be a replay of 2008. If the airlines have priced too high, many people will not travel. And thus the airlines might blink.
So consumers should not just search once, get discouraged and fail to recheck closer to the holiday. Sign up for airfare alerts, do your homework, keep looking and you might be pleasantly surprised.
George Hobica is the founder of Airfarewatchdog.com.