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Cheap Holiday Travel: How Early Should You Book?

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Whether you're planning to head home for the holidays, visit family, or take a vacation, the question of when to lock in cheap holiday airfare is always a hot topic. Rules and tips fly around the Internet faster than a Concord: Book on a Tuesday or Wednesday (maybe a good idea). Clear cookies or search in private browser mode (probably only matters when doing lots of searches in one day). Book X number of days or weeks before the flight (is 21 days enough? Or more like 60 days?).

The problem is, airline ticket prices fluctuate daily and sometimes by the hour -- especially for holiday travel. Numerous factors affect airfare, and each analyst weighs them differently. Kayak's 2014 travel guide, for example, asserts that three to seven weeks ahead of departure is the best time to book domestic flights. CheapAir.com concludes that the low point is somewhere between 27 and 114 days before departure, yielding average savings up to $201 a ticket.

So what's a budget-minded traveler to do? Check early and check often, and know a good deal when one pops up. This strategy is critical for anyone on the prowl for cheap holiday airfare.

The "book as early as possible" camp claims its share of travel agents. As one explains on a personal blog, the search technology agents use lets them see beyond price to how many seats are available in each booking class -- not strictly business or coach, but sub-classes that usually have a letter designation indicating seat price. The blogger notes that the cheapest classes usually sell out first, meaning booking early is advantageous.

A post by another travel agent on Reddit likewise urges early action and notes that price fluctuations from day to day could reflect tickets having been placed on hold by customers and subsequently released. Empty seats cost the airlines, so as flight day approaches, fares may drop to clear out excess supply. Gambling on the sudden appearance of cheap airfare shortly before a planned holiday trip is risky, though. When airlines know they're likely to fill every seat, such as during the holidays, last-minute buying can mean paying a premium.

For consumers who think they see a good fare but are unsure whether to snatch it, federal law mandates that reservations made seven or more days before departure can be canceled without penalty within 24 hours. After the hold period, services are available to help track post-purchase price movements and claim refunds. Add flight details on Yapta and the site will send an alert if there is a refund possibility, taking airlines' rebooking fees into account where applicable. CheapAir.com offers a Price Drop Payback: If the price falls for an identical itinerary, CheapAir.com pays the difference up to $100 in the form of credit toward future purchases.

Travelers may be tempted to cancel a flight and rebook upon finding a lower fare, but airline cancellation fees run as high as $200 for domestic flights on United, Delta, and American. Other carriers charge more nominal fees, such as $75 on Allegiant Air. Southwest Airlines doesn't charge anything for many fare classes and Alaska Airlines waives the fee if the change is made at least 60 days before departure. With some airlines, it probably pays to lock in holiday airfare now. If the ticket price drops enough to offset any rebooking fee, passengers can make the change and still save money.