Thanksgiving 2006 is shaping up as an expensive, crowded holiday for air travelers.
The average advance round-trip fare for Thanksgiving weekend travel has soared to $434, up 15% from a year ago, an analysis by consulting firm Sabre Airline Solutions for USA TODAY shows.
Higher fares aren't deterring travelers. Early bookings are 42% ahead of last year, Sabre says. That suggests travelers are booking earlier to nab a seat, Sabre analyst Vijay Bathija says.
Because holiday travelers are bidding for about the same number of airline seats as last Thanksgiving, waiting to book will make it "very hard to find a good deal," he says.
Sabre consultants analyzed hundreds of thousands of holiday fares purchased through Sabre's affiliated ticket distribution system through Sept. 30 for domestic air travel on Nov. 22 and Nov. 26. They're the Wednesday and Sunday bracketing Thanksgiving this year, and they'd typically be the busiest for holiday travel.
Frequent flier Jim Fletcher of Burnet, Texas, booked his round-trip ticket on American Airlines from Austin to Washington seven weeks in advance. He paid $540 despite a corporate discount and a return flight that doesn't depart until the Monday after Thanksgiving Day.
Phil and Lesley Dubs of Fort Lauderdale got lucky. Six weeks ago, they snared such cheap tickets to New York -- $139 round trip each on Delta Air Lines -- that they're going for a few days to take their son out for turkey dinner.
Phil Dubs attributes their luck to his tenacious wife, Lesley, a travel agent who often scours New York fares.
"She came running into my office, saying, 'I got tickets to New York for $139. Let's go,'" he says. "It didn't dawn on me that I'll have to spend $350 for dinner."
Thanksgiving traditionally ranks as one of the year's busiest holidays for travel.
Many airports are concerned not only about the number of travelers, but also that many don't fly frequently and may not be aware of the liquid and gel carry-on rules implemented in August and relaxed in September.
"There is great confusion among travelers about baggie sizes and what size gels are permissible," Reno-Tahoe airport spokesman Brian Kulpin says.
Travelers may now go through security with travel-size toiletries that fit in a single, quart-size, clear plastic baggie. They also can carry drinks and other items purchased after security.
Confusion is so great at the Nashville airport that, on regular days, about 30% of passengers fail to meet the new requirements, holding up security lines, says Lynne Lowrance, airport spokeswoman.
Nashville plans to move the security tables deeper into the lines of travelers at checkpoints to help advise fliers what's permitted and what's banned, she says.
United and Northwest airlines are seeing a year-over-year increase in travel on Thanksgiving Day.
At more than twice the rate of inflation, the 8% increase is a "healthy and welcome sign" for airlines hoping for a profitable year.
Southwest's the ticket on next-day trips, but AA has advance advantage.
Passenger traffic in 2006 is about 10 percent ahead of last year, and that rate is expected to climb even higher by the end of the week.