By Katia Hetter
(CNN) — Although rumors abound about the best times to buy the most affordable holiday plane tickets, flying during some of the year’s busiest travel periods won’t be cheap.
In an era of packed airplanes, shrinking seats and fees for extra leg room, which airline is going to offer inexpensive holiday fares? Common business sense dictates that high prices will follow high demand.
What’s a procrastinating traveler to do, besides drive or take the train?
CNN got the latest from airfare experts to get the lay of the land and discover some ways to dull the price pain.
Price of a Thanksgiving ticket
A domestic Thanksgiving round-trip ticket priced about $322 is a good deal, according to Hopper, a flight price predictor application that averaged all domestic trips to arrive at that price. Although that’s not cheap, prices are 5% to 10% lower than last year.
More good news: Hopper predicts that domestic round-trip prices won’t rise more than 5% up to 10 days before departure (and then will spike sharply for the very last-minute shopper).
If you can fly on Thanksgiving Day, that’s the cheapest round-trip option. Otherwise, Hopper recommends flying on Monday, November 23, and returning Friday, November 27.
When to buy for Christmas
The Orbitz Holiday Insider Index recommends buying holiday tickets this week. The travel website predicts that the best Christmas airfare deals, averaging $428 for a round-trip ticket, will be available on Friday.
Fares may dip again November 6 and 7 but will rise to new heights during the week before Christmas. Last-minute travelers should prepare to pay an average of $497 on December 17, and it only gets worse from there.
Hopper says customers can save up to 30% by departing on December 21, the Monday before Christmas, or on Christmas Eve. Aim to return on Christmas Day or on/after Tuesday, January 5.
In contrast, the most expensive days to travel around the holidays are the weekends after Christmas (Dec 26-27) and New Year’s Day (Jan 2-3).
Are you cheap and flexible?
We don’t mean to be rude. Being cheap and flexible is a good thing!
If you don’t need window or aisle seats and great flight times and connections, Airfarewatchdog’s George Hobica is offering some hope.
"The bargain bin only has middle seats far from your traveling companions and 5 a.m. or redeye flights," Hobica wrote in an email.
"I recommend that people keep on looking several times a day every day of the week and pounce when a price seems reasonable," he said. "Travel on Thanksgiving morning; return the Saturday after. Fly on December 24-25 and return on New Year’s Eve or January 1."
Always look into alternate airports — remember, the New York area has five airports, and Houston has two — and check Southwest.com in addition to Kayak or other search engines, he says.
On some super-competitive routes (think Chicago-New York), Hobica says, there will always be "a few scattered seats and flight times that will go on sale."
Don’t forget to count the fees
Remember to factor in baggage fees, extra leg room fees and food purchases before booking flights.
Airline credit card holders may get a free checked bag and other perks.
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