Holiday Fares: No, No, No

So you've waited until the last minute to book your Christmas flight to Vermont or New Year's excursion to Vail? Unfortunately this wasn't a great year to wait.

Unlike a couple of years ago, more people are traveling this holiday season, but like a couple of years ago, there is a similar, if not fewer, number of seats available. With the recession and downtick in travel, airlines gradually have reduced the number of planes in the skies.

"Airlines haven't added much back even though there's a rebound in demand," said Jami Counter, senior director for flight searches at TripAdvisor. "Two years ago people were hunkering down, and there were tons of deals to be had. Now it's exactly the opposite."

Thus airfare prices are as much as 20 percent higher than in the last two holiday seasons. On top of that, Counter said, airlines quietly have added a surcharge to holiday fares for the last couple of years.

"It's a little sneaky," he said. "I wouldn't consider it an ancillary fee; it's a back-end way to deal with revenue-management tactics."

Short of a shockwave through the industry — caused by, for example, a terror attack or a sharp rise in oil prices — Counter suggested booking early for trips in 2011.

"General travel trends are likely to continue on this course," he said. "I think airlines will take the cautious approach. They have learned their lessons and will be disciplined in adding capacity."

Meantime, here are his tips for navigating last-minute holiday travel this year:

Flexible dates: Flexibility allows a much better chance of finding reasonable fares — "maybe not screaming deals but something that won't bankrupt you," Counter said. Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve are on Fridays, which will make those days, as well as the Wednesdays and Thursdays before, big travel days with limited availability at this point. On the flipside, stay away from the Sundays after those holidays.

Travel on the undesirable days: "No one likes to travel on Christmas Day, but you might be looking at fairly empty planes and better airfares," Counter said.

Go to Europe: Heading across the Atlantic won't be cheap, but it might be cheaper than usual in the holiday season. The Caribbean and ski destinations are at peak season while demand to usual business destinations, especially colder locations such as London, dwindles over the holidays.

Drive: If you're within a few hundred miles and your car gets decent mileage, make it a road trip. Also, hotels and rental cars in cities with typically high business traffic, such as Atlanta or Dallas, should have a fair bit of availability. New York City or Chicago, on the other hand, might be a bit tougher.

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Look at secondary airports: If you're going to Washington, consider Baltimore instead.