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Book Early for Holiday Travel Deals

Even if you feel as if you just got back from summer vacation, now’s the time to make travel plans for your winter holiday. You’ll have more options, and you’ll likely shave some dollars off the ticket price. And prices are creeping up: The average round-trip domestic flight last year cost $499 for the most popular Thanksgiving itinerary -- Wednesday to Sunday -- and $381 for the most popular Christmas trips, according to Bing Travel. Holiday fares this year will be at least 8% higher, predicts George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com.

Start your ticket search with our favorite travel site, Kayak.com, which helps you scour hundreds of sources at once. You can find the cheapest travel days with the site’s flexible-search function, which lets you check flights up to three days before or after the departure and return dates you select. And keep in mind that flying on the holidays themselves often yields the cheapest fares. Last year, flying on Christmas Day saved an average of $67 per ticket.

Next, set up e-mail alerts with Kayak or other sites, such as Airfarewatchdog or Yapta.com. They’ll send fares straight to your in-box, daily or weekly; some sites, including Yapta, will even alert you to fare cuts.

Do you have a flexible schedule, and can you risk waiting? Hobica has noticed that three or four weeks before Christmas is “often a sweet spot when airlines lower their fares,” although there’s no guarantee prices for flights to your destination will drop at that time.

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Even after you buy a ticket, keep track of fare fluctuations. With some airlines, including AirTran, Alaska Airlines, JetBlue and Southwest, you can score fee-free credit for future travel (but not a lower fare) if your flight’s fare drops below the price you paid.

On the road. If you’re on the fence between driving and flying, try BeFrugal.com’s Fly or Drive Calculator to figure out which method is cheaper. If you decide to drive and want to rent your wheels, note that car rentals are pricier than in the past, according to SmarterTravel.com editor Anne Banas. For the best bargain on a rental car, name your own price on Priceline.com.

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