Save on last-minute holiday travel

Posted on: 1:44 pm, November 14, 2012, by

By Jillian Anthony

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and affordable holiday travel options are fading just as quickly.

Last-minute flights can cost up to $200 more than ones booked earlier. And pretty much everyone is paying more than they did last year. Round-trip domestic flights between Nov. 17 and 27 are averaging $386, a 9% increase from last year, according to Travelocity’s senior editor Courtney Scott.

Part of the problem: Financially-strapped carriers, like American Airlines, continue to cut the number of flights they’re offering, said Clem Bason, president of the Hotwire Group. That means there are fewer seats to go around and the ones that are available are more expensive, especially around the Thanksgiving holiday.

But if you’ve just decided that you want to see your family over the holidays, all hope is not lost. There are ways to save on last-minute travel over Thanksgiving.

First, prepare to be flexible with your travel dates. The heaviest travel days are the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday and Monday afterward. Traveling during off-peak days can save you up to $288 on your airfare, said Scott.

“If you can book [for] the weekend [prior to] Thanksgiving Day as your outbound trip and then return the Friday or Saturday after and make it a one week trip, you’ll probably get a better deal,” said Bason.

Next, look for flights in alternate airports outside of major city centers. If you live in Miami, for example, check flights out of the Ft. Lauderdale or West Palm Beach airports instead. If you’re going to Washington, D.C. , make sure to check Baltimore’s BWI airport, too. Low-cost carriers that don’t list their prices on other websites, such as Southwest and Allegiant, also tend to operate out of these smaller airports.

Another way to help you save is to book a package deal that bundles flight, car rental, and hotel fees from travel websites. The best package deals can be found earlier in the season as well, but again if you have some flexibility with your travel dates you can typically nab you some great discounts. For those who are staying with relatives once they arrive, booking a flight along with a rental car tends to be a good bet. Just be sure to read the fine print and understand what added fees are involved.

Also, choose short hops over nonstops. Nonstop flights can add a 10% to 20% premium onto your ticket price, according to FareCompare, a travel planning website. Short flights, such as one from Los Angeles to San Francisco, may not see a huge holiday price jump because so many airlines fly those routes daily. That means they can be a good option for connecting flights or final destinations.

Finally, pack light and skip the baggage fees. It might not be your biggest expense, but the extra $25 to $50 can add up, especially if the whole family is traveling together.

Last-minute holiday travel probably won’t be a cheap affair, but at least Turkey Day travelers have one advantage — Thanksgiving flights are looking slightly cheaper than thsoe over Christmas and New Year’s, according to priceline.com.

And if you truly have flexibility, traveling by car, train, or bus can really cut costs, especially for families where the purchase of several round-trip flights can add up to thousands of dollars. In fact, 90% of people who are planning to travel over the holiday weekend this year will choose to drive the average roughly 706-mile Thanksgiving roundtrip, according to AAA.