Arthur Frommer: Airlines trim dates for holiday surcharge

10/09/2011 12:00 AM

10/09/2011 9:06 AM

The press is full of reports that most of the major airlines — American, United, Delta among them — have reduced the number of holiday dates to six on which they will be charging surcharges of $20 to $40 each way. So this Thanksgiving and Christmas, it will be only a small number of instances — like the day before Christmas or the day before Thanksgiving, or the day after New Year's — when rates will suddenly skyrocket, as compared with the 12 or so days that saw such surcharges in 2010. Are the airlines frightened that they will be unable to fill their seats if they suddenly charge more on such days?

Not likely. Flights are already going out nearly full on days having no relationship to holidays. The airlines have cut their domestic capacity so drastically that it is only occasional flights that have empty seats, and there will be no such lightly booked planes around Thanksgiving and Christmas. I suspect the airlines have eliminated several peak-season surcharge days only because they already have greatly increased their domestic airfares this past year. Even without surcharges, the average American will be paying considerably more for flights this November and December.

And any thought that last-minute discounts will be available for holiday dates is surely without any realistic basis. The tendency of some travelers to delay booking in the hopes of obtaining later holiday-season discounts also is without justification. If you need to plan a trip by air for Thanksgiving or Christmas purposes, you should buy your tickets now. They will never be offered at a lesser price as we approach Thanksgiving and Christmas.

If you are determined to fly for less during those holiday periods, your only successful tactic will be to fly on Thanksgiving Day itself or on Christmas itself. Planes are lightly booked on those dates because passengers are then unable, in most cases, to reach the homes of relatives in time for a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast. Apart from that unusual scheduling, the other sure-fire tactic is to schedule your outbound Christmas trip for before Dec. 15, when rates will remain low.

As for Thanksgiving flights to Europe: The prospects for alternative flights to Europe around Thanksgiving time are no better, in sharp contrast with the situation in previous years. Back in 2010 and earlier, I was enthusiastic about the prospect of an affordable four-night stay in European capitals at Thanksgiving, even including the cost of trans-Atlantic air transportation. Leaving the U.S. around Nov. 23 and then spending four Thanksgiving-period nights in London, Paris, Prague and the like was a doable proposition. Such tour packagers as Gate 1 Travel offered alluring prices. And for some Americans, the idea of spending Thanksgiving away from their families was appealing.

I can't exhibit the same enthusiasm this year. The steady growth in trans-Atlantic airfares, including fuel surcharges, and the need to add steadily increasing government fees and taxes to those rates, make a short Thanksgiving trip a pricey proposition.

On their face, the four-night Thanksgiving packages seem reasonably priced: air and land (including fuel surcharge and four nights of bed-and- breakfast arrangements), for departures from the U.S. on Nov. 23, currently are priced by such packagers as Gate 1 Travel (www.gate1travel.com) at $699 per person to Dublin, $799 to London, $929 to Paris, $749 to Barcelona, $779 to Rome.

But none of those lead prices includes government taxes and fees, amounting to at least $200 per person and in some cases to considerably more than $200. The idea of spending $1,000 just for the basic ingredients of a short London stay, for instance, to which must be added all the other costs of transfers, meals and sightseeing, has badly affected the desirability of one of those fast Thanksgiving flings.

Just four or so years ago, friends of mine spent Thanksgiving (four hotel nights) in Prague for about $599 apiece, including all taxes and fees. Today, they'd need to spend nearly double that amount for the basic features of a short air-and-land package to Prague, if promotional Thanksgiving packages to Prague were still offered.

So in the interests of candor and full disclosure, I'm not writing about Thanksgiving in Europe this year.

Have turkey with your folks instead.

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