Only Santa will be flying cheaply this holiday season

  • Article by: HUGO MARTIN , Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: October 26, 2010 - 10:34 PM

Bah, humbug. More passengers and fuller planes are giving airlines the opportunity to raise ticket prices.

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High wire motorcycle artist Dean Schmidt is dressed like a Santa Claus as he waves to visitors of a Christmas fair in Berlin on Monday, Nov. 24, 2008. In the background is Berlin's TV tower.

Photo: Miguel Villagran, Associated Press

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Airline passengers can expect ticket prices to be 7 to 18 percent higher this holiday season than last year as an economic recovery -- however modest -- spurs growing demand for air travel.

Travelers can also look forward to more crowded flights: The airlines have added few new planes or routes in the past several years.

"I expect prices to be quite high compared to the last couple years, as demand is strong and supply is weak," said Rick Seaney, chief executive of travel website FareCompare.

Already, airlines are packing more passengers per plane, with the nation's top carriers recording 86.3 percent of all seats filled in June -- the highest rate in 10 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

About 41 million Americans are expected to fly during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season, one of the busiest travel seasons of the year.

Passengers took advantage of bargains last year, when airlines dropped prices to the lowest levels in decades to entice recession-battered travelers into the air. But now, travel experts say, demand has begun to pick up, partly a result of pent-up demand and growing optimism about the economy.

"Travel demand for the peak travel days is increasing, driving prices higher as availability diminishes," said Jack E. Richards, president and chief executive of Pleasant Holidays, a travel agency in Westlake Village, Calif.

Some experts held out hope there may still be bargains ahead. If travelers balk at the higher prices, they suggested, the airlines may offer last-minute discounts to fill empty seats.

Jay Johnson, owner of Coastline Travel Advisors in Garden Grove, Calif., said travelers who haven't yet booked a flight should consider waiting because he expects airlines to offer bargains if demand drops.

Seats will also be cheaper, Johnson said, if you are willing to travel several days before Thanksgiving or on Christmas Eve.

"At this point, you should either wait or fly on the actual holiday," he said.

Another tip to avoid higher rates is to book a flight during off-peak hours, such as early in the morning, or fly to a smaller, outlying airport, said George Hobica, founder of the travel website AirfareWatchdog.

The fare increases are in sharp contrast to the 2009 holiday season, when the recession dragged prices to the lowest levels in decades.

"People should not take the first offer they see," he said. "Check the prices several times a day and consider taking alternate airports."

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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