Air prices are up 5 to 10 percent over last year and rising faster than Santa's sleigh - about $5 each day.
Flying home for the holidays might turn out to be the most expensive gift this year.
For each day consumers wait to buy tickets, $5 will be tacked onto their airfare, said Rick Seaney, CEO of the travel website FareCompare.com.
Overall, prices will be 5 to 10 percent higher than 2010 as airlines have reduced flights and raised prices to offset higher fuel costs.
"It's a simple story of supply and demand," said Melissa Klurman, contributing editor at Travelocity. "Airlines have cut capacity across the board, but they are trying to have every seat full all the time."
For example, Minneapolis travelers flying to New York for Thanksgiving will pay, on average, $407 for a roundtrip ticket, $35 more than last year, according to FareCompare. A roundtrip flight to Orlando costs $516, a $45 premium over last year.
"The holidays are not about getting a good deal. It's about getting a better bad deal," Seaney said.
High fares are the reason fundraising consultant Jennifer Abrahamson will likely stay home this year. Usually, she visits her parents in Minnesota for the holidays. But after learning the flight would cost $1,000 or more for the entire family, Abrahamson said it wasn't worth it.
"It really makes you think what would I do with that $1,000 or $1,500?" asked Abrahamson, 41, who lives in Tennessee with her husband and 7-year-old son.
Twin Cities software developer Luke Francl is adding inconveniences to his Christmas travel to save money. He booked a $350 roundtrip flight that lands in Lansing, Mich., about 70 miles away from Grand Rapids, where his sister lives. His sister will drive an hour to pick him up. But flying into Lansing saved him at least $300.
"It's important to save money on air travel, because if it gets too expensive, we just wouldn't go," said Francl, 32.
During the holiday travel season, about 100,000 passengers will use Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport each day, 10 percent more than a non-holiday.
And the number of holiday travelers is expected to increase a modest 1.5 percent from last year, said Jeffrey Hamiel, executive director of the Metropolitan Airports Commission. Despite higher fares and the struggling economy, people still want to travel, he said.
Delta Air Lines, MSP's largest carrier, said it expects to see "strong profitability" in the fourth quarter, which includes such high-traffic months as November and December.
Meanwhile, hometown carrier Sun Country expects the number of departing passengers on its flights at MSP to increase 5 percent to nearly 100,000 in November and December. Sun Country has raised its fares about 5 percent from last year.
Wendy Williams Blackshaw, the airline's vice president of marketing and sales, said she believes the higher traffic is a sign the economy is improving.
"When people book out further, it's usually indicating that they know they are going to have the income to cover the vacation," she said.
Local travel agents advised consumers to book flights early and be flexible about the days they travel. For instance, flying earlier during the week of Thanksgiving and returning the week after the holiday could result in better prices.
The average Thanksgiving airfare out of Minneapolis-St. Paul is $359. That's lower than the national average of $375 this year, according to Travelocity.
Marketing assistant Jessica Berg booked her flight a month earlier this year after overpaying for her flight to Phoenix in 2010. This year, she joined forces with her brother-in-law and two sisters to look for the best deals to Phoenix. She ended up purchasing a $402 round-trip ticket on Southwest in October, a savings of about $100 from last year.
Berg said she doesn't see it as extra money.
"It's still outside my normal budgeting," the 25-year-old said.
And there's growing evidence consumers are pushing back when it comes to higher fares. U.S. airlines on Friday reversed price increases of $10 per roundtrip that they put in place two weeks ago. But that rollback only applied to walk-up fares, travel experts said, meaning leisure travelers won't get a break on plane tickets they purchase for the holidays.
Fares in 2011 have risen about 5 to 7 percent compared to 2010, according to FareCompare.
But observers say higher fares -- for the holidays and the year overall -- don't necessarily translate into profits. According to the Air Transport Association of America, higher costs outpaced higher revenues this year, leading to a slim profit margin of 0.9 percent for U.S. airlines.
"The industry's razor-thin profit margin means that airlines are keeping less than one penny in profit for every $1 in revenue," said John Heimlich, chief economist and vice president for the Air Transport Association of America.
Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712