August 7, 2008
Fliers Should Book Early
By DR STEWART
Fewer flights after Labor Day mean seat availability is tight.
Book your fall, Thanksgiving and Christmas travel plans now, travel industry executives say.
With the airline industry announcing post-Labor Day seating capacity cuts of 8 percent to 15 percent, fall and holiday travelers will have fewer and more expensive options the longer they wait to confirm airline, hotel and rental car reservations, officials said.
"If they haven't booked by now for the Thanksgiving period, they'll find there are very few discounted fares left," said David Huff, owner of Avenues to Travel Ltd., a Broken Arrow travel agency. "Unfortunately, most people wait way too late to book holiday travel. This year it just appears to be worse with reduced (airline seating) capacity, increased fares and increased fuel costs.
"The closer we get to your travel date, the higher the prices are going to be. You'll have to be more and more flexible on your travel dates."
At American Airlines, the world's largest air carrier, executives have announced plans to ground at least 75 airplanes after Labor Day in response to a doubling of fuel prices in the last year.
"Book early, book often," said American spokesman Tim Smith. "Any period of peak demand is going to see less expensive fares book up first. Availability is reduced because of high demand and less (seating) capacity."
Southwest Airlines, on the other hand, is increasing its seating capacity 4 percent after Labor Day, said spokesman Chris Mainz.
"The best advice is to book early," Mainz said. "Passengers won't be penalized if fares drop. They can get a refund."
Southwest and other carriers will rebook passengers at the lower fare if prices drop before the travel date.
Airline cutbacks at Tulsa International Airport have reduced seating capacity to 6,200 seats a day, down 800 seats or 13 percent, compared with a year ago, said Alexis Higgins, marketing director for the Tulsa Airport Authority.
Higgins said she tried unsuccessfully to book a discount fare to Denver during the Christmas holidays.
"I even looked at leaving Dec. 19 and coming back before Christmas," she said. "The low Internet fares were taken. If you're looking for a low fare, you need to book as soon as you have confirmed travel plans."
Alex Eaton, president of World Travel Service in Tulsa, said he estimates airlines will cut capacity 20 percent by the fourth quarter.
"You need to book Thanksgiving and Christmas travel now," Eaton said. "By the time you get into the end of September and October, you should have your spring break travel plans booked. There aren't going to be any seats on airplanes."
Melinda Duncan, manager of Owasso Travel, said bargains are still available in some markets if travelers can be flexible.
Duncan said she found a six-day gambling and skiing vacation package to Reno and Lake Tahoe at Christmas for a family of three for $1,500, including round-trip air fares, hotel and transfers.
"But you need to book it," she said. "The only tickets left were leaving Christmas Day and coming back on the 31st."
Airline cutbacks are having a positive effect on hotel and rental car rates in some markets, said Duncan and Huff, the Broken Arrow travel agency owner.
Good airline and hotel packages on New Year's Day are available to Las Vegas, where hotels are offering free nights and book-one- get-one-free deals, Duncan said.
"Hotel rates have dropped 20 to 25 percent, and rental cars are down 10 percent, depending on the market," Huff said.
Chris Payne, a spokesman for Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group Inc., the Tulsa-based rental car company, said the firm is operating with a smaller fleet in some markets as a result of the airline capacity reductions.
Ned Maniscalco, spokesman for Enterprise Rent-A-Car in St. Louis, said the rental car industry is feeling the effects of the airline industry contraction.
"It's always a good idea to book early, whether it's an airline or a rental car," Maniscalco said.
Travelers with Internet access have a number of tools they can use to find lower fares, cheaper hotel rooms and affordable rental cars, said Clem Bason, vice president of Hotwire.com, a discount travel Web site.
Many travel Web sites, including Hotwire.com, have a "flexible date search" feature that permits travelers to research air fares on either side of their planned departure and return flight dates, Bason said.
"I also encourage people to examine alternate airports," Bason said. "You might find lower prices at nearby airports."
Recently, using travel Web site www.ifly.com, Bason was able to find a discount flight for a friend between Philadelphia and San Diego.
"He couldn't find a good fare to San Diego International Airport, but I found a fare to Carlsbad that was half the San Diego fare, and it was easier to find a rental car," Bason said.
Carlsbad McClellan-Palomar Airport, 34 miles north of San Diego International, is a general aviation airport served by United Airlines, US Airways and AirTran Airways.
"If you know you're traveling during the Thanksgiving-Christmas period, I would start booking now," Bason said. "The airlines are reducing capacity, and I would expect prices to spike."
D.R. Stewart 581-8451
Discount air fare, hotel and rental car Web sites
tulsaworld.com/airfarewatchdog: Lists low air fares for all U.S. airlines, including special fares available only on the airlines' own Web sites.
tulsaworld.com/cheapair: A compilation of discount air fares, hotels, rental cars and vacation packages.
tulsaworld.com/ifly: Find and compare information on more than 200 U.S. airports, including flight tracking, parking options, fare specials and flying tips.
Originally published by D.R. STEWART World Staff Writer.
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