Thanksgiving Travel 2013 Top 5: Book Early, Be Flexible

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — If you're one of the 93 million travelers expected to hit the road or take to the skies this Thanksgiving, experts say you should book your tickets and rental cars before the end of September in order to snag the best deals. Thanksgiving travel prices are already up by more than 10% over this time last year, and travelers who wait to book until November could end up paying as much as 60% more than those who get in early, according to travel search engine Hipmunk. We checked in with travel-savvy professionals to get the low-down on how to keep Thanksgiving travel prices — and stress — as low as possible.

1.) Book between Sept. 20-30.

"There seems to be something of a sweet spot about 60 days prior to Thanksgiving," says Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet travel agency. "You can't buy too far in advance because it seems as though the airlines hold the very good fares until around two months out, but we've been able to pretty consistently buy low fares by looking at the 60-day mark."

Airfare for Thanksgiving 2012 travel increased exponentially as the holiday approached, according to Hipmunk, with travelers who waited just one month after Labor Day to book paying on average $502.77, a 35% price increase from those who booked 60 days or more in advance. This year, travelers booking the week before Thanksgiving could end up paying more than $200 per ticket over those who book early.

Thanksgiving travel has already seen a bigger spike than usual this year, according to Chris Cuddy, chief commercial officer of CheapOair.com.

"We've seen people booking earlier than ever before, almost 20% more than this time last year," Cuddy says. "It might feel like it's too early, but this is the busiest travel holiday we've got, and I think more and more people are getting conscious of locking something in. People shouldn't wait for a better deal — Thanksgiving is going to come sooner than you think."

2.) Stay flexible with travel dates and airports.

"If you are restricted to departing on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and returning the Sunday or Monday after Thanksgiving, you're set up for the most expensive travel parameters," Goldman says.

Travelers who have a little "wiggle room" and can return on a Saturday or later in the week after Thanksgiving will find a lot more choice in how much they spend on a fare, she says. For travelers who may have a late dinner planned on Thanksgiving, it may be smart to consider traveling on Thanksgiving morning or Thanksgiving Day.

"Thanksgiving Day is a great time to fly because everyone wants to be where they are going. If you can get to your celebration later that night by flying that morning, chances are good that you will snag a good fare," she says. "This may be tough if you have to go cross country, but a very early flight could still get you in in time for dinner."

For travelers who may have enough flexibility to head to their celebration the weekend before Thanksgiving, the cheapest day to book a return trip is Friday, Nov. 29, Cuddy says. If that doesn't work for you, Saturday the 30th or Wednesday, Dec. 4, are also more affordable options.

If the peak travel days are all you're able to swing, Cuddy advises looking at flights in and out of adjacent airports.

"People like flying in and out of D.C., but Baltimore is just an hour away. People also like LaGuardia, but Newark and JFK are just as good," Cuddy says. "Likewise in San Francisco, people can look at Oakland or San Jose. During busy travel times, you can get more availability there."

3.) Book your rental car when you book your flight, and return it early.

"If all the people who fly into a city rent a car in that city, then it would be in your best interest to book your rental car well in advance," Cuddy says. "Even if you have a car booked, you may wind up driving a minivan because a lot of things will be taken, but as long as you have a reservation you'll be OK."

Even if you're not sure if you'll need a rental car, Cuddy says to take advantage of their flexible booking policies, as most car reservations can be canceled with no fees.

When returning your rental, Cuddy says to add at least 30 to 60 minutes to the time you expect it to take.

"If the car rental companies say to drop off the car two hours before your flight leaves, I think to play it safe you need to get there at least two and a half hours or three hours beforehand," he says. "It's not like it's something in your control or even the car company's control — it's the surge of people."

Unfortunately, if you miss your flight due to a rental car holdup, there's nothing the airline will do. You would still be charged a re-booking fee, and during such a busy travel time, it might not be easy to get rebooked.

"Keep in mind that if you miss your flight, the next flight may not even be that same day. You might have to spend another night or two in hotels."

4.) Buy travel insurance

"If you're taking a trip at Thanksgiving, get travel insurance. If you don't have it and things get screwed up, you could end up spending thousands on hotels, trains or rental cars," Goldman says. "You'll still have the stress of having not made it to your event, but you won't have the extra expense."

Trip insurance has become more popular in recent years, says Cuddy, adding that CheapOair sees a lot of different policies being bought these days, but customers should be careful that their policy covers everything they need.

"Some policies can help you if you have an accident, others can help get you a free hotel room if you get stranded. You just have to make sure you're getting what you need for your trip," Cuddy says.

5.) Don't forget to pack your good attitude.

Even though your trip may not be without its fair share of flaws, Goldman says you've got to "be in the spirit of the day."

"The reason you're traveling is to be with friends and family," she says. "Try not to get all bent out of shape because you are going to be dealing with crowds and lots of small hassles that tend to make people crazy."

Unfortunately, a lot of travelers get so stressed out from their journey that they "flush their whole reason for being there right down the toilet," instead of enjoying time with family once they arrive.

"Get over it and enjoy your weekend," she says.

— By Kathryn Tuggle

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