Planning to travel over the Christmas holidays? It's the question on everyone's lips: should I buy now or wait? Fares on some routes are breathtakingly high, higher than we've seen in years, for peak holiday travel, such as departing a few days before Dec. 25 and returning on the following Sunday or Monday. Example: we're seeing tax-included fares as high as in the $400's each way on some airlines on popular trans-continental routes, such as New York JFK to Los Angeles. Ouch!
And yet, if you look at seat maps when fare shopping, you'll notice that there are a lot of empty seats still. So what's going on here? Well, the airlines must be predicting that they'll sell those seats eventually. But will they? That's anyone's guess right now. It's possible that consumers will say "no thanks" and at the last minute airlines will find themselves with seats to get rid of quickly. This happened in 2009 and 2008, if memory serves us correctly. We simply do not know what will happen this year. If we did, we'd be a lot smarter than we are, and we'd probably also be able to predict next month's unemployment figures and GDP growth. And we'd be rich. We'll leave predictions to pundits who are braver than we are.
One thing we can tell you is that you'll do better fare-wise if you take connecting flights. And if you're reluctant to pay top dollar for a cramped coach seat, and at the same time would like to hedge your bets, you might consider booking a first class, refundable fare on US Airways. Right now, US is offering refundable first class fares on some routes for not a heck of a lot more than non-refundable, nonstop economy fares on so-called discount airlines. For example: New York LaGuardia one-way to Los Angeles LAX leaving on Dec 21, 22, or 23 is about $600 including tax on a fully-refundable fare in first class on US Air. A one-way, non-refundable economy fare New York JFK to LAX on the same dates via VirginAmerica, an airline we love, is running around $421 with tax. So for $180 more, you get first class and a fully flexible, refundable fare. And if coach fares do go down right before the holidays, you can cancel and nab an economy class fare with no penalty.
We've found similar comparisons on other routes as well, so while neither option is especially cheap, if you hate paying a lot for a middle seat in the back of the plane, and then paying $150 if you have to change your plans, then maybe paying $180 more for some comfort and no change fee isn't so bad. I'm flying New York-LA this Christmas, and I'm taking my own advice.
--George Hobica, Airfarewatchdog.com