How to score an affordable Thanksgiving airfare

Jane Engle

Oh, great. Even more people will fly over Thanksgiving this year than last year, airlines say. But it's not too late to score an affordable seat (OK, semi-affordable) for the holiday. Just be careful about when you go.

To save big, delay returning by a couple of days. It's worth begging your boss. By coming back on Tuesday, Nov. 27, instead of Sunday, Nov. 25, you may save $100 or more on a Los Angeles-Chicago round trip on major airlines, according to a search on On Southwest Airlines' website, one-way fares from Chicago to Washington, D.C , recently started at $108 on Nov. 27, about half the price on Nov. 25.

If you loathe crowds or just want a shot at a better seat, fly on Turkey Day itself. That's not as crazy as it sounds. Thanks to time differences, if you're going west to east, you often can leave home in the early morning and still make a midafternoon holiday dinner.

The payoff can be huge. Fly to Chicago out of the Los Angeles on Thanksgiving and back Nov. 28, and pay fares starting at $296 on Southwest, a recent check showed. Fly out Nov. 21 and return Sunday, and you may pay nearly twice that.

It's all a numbers game, of course. The more passengers on the plane, the higher the price.

The busiest day in the Thanksgiving travel period will be Nov. 25, when an estimated 2.4 million people will fly, said John Heimlich, vice president and chief economist for the industry group Airlines for America. Nov. 21 and Nov. 26 won't be far behind. On those three dates, planes are expected to take off nearly 90 percent full.  But on Turkey Day, only 1.3 million fliers will scramble for seats and overhead bin space. Sweet, if you can swing it.

In a teleconference Wednesday, Heimlich said fares are already up about 4 percent for the first nine months of 2012. He did not give prices for Thanksgiving, but since slightly more people are projected to take to the skies than last year, don't expect bargains.

Taking the long view, passengers are actually paying 16 percent less on average for fares, adjusted for inflation, than they did in 2000, Heimlich said. And that's something to be thankful for.

Another piece of pie, anyone?