FORT WORTH, Texas -- Travelers, prepare your wallets. Airfares for the coming holiday season are up about 17 percent from last year, and travel experts don't expect prices to drop anytime soon.
"The last couple of years, people have gotten used to procrastinating because airlines have been discounting to the last minute," said Rick Seaney, founder of FareCompare.com. "This year, the exact opposite is going to happen. You cannot procrastinate this year."
And with Christmas less than 90 days away and Thanksgiving practically right around the corner, experts say holiday fliers should be shopping right now and preparing to buy tickets in the next few weeks.
Where did the deals go?
Two years ago, airlines were slashing fares as consumers decided to stay close to home during the recession. Now a couple of factors are contributing to higher fares, experts say. Because consumers cut back on travel the past two years, there is pent-up demand, Seaney said.
"A lot of people didn't take their Thanksgiving trip or holiday trip, so they're going to take it this year," he said.
And because airlines cut back on flights during the recession, there are fewer seats than before. The new seats being added have been on more profitable international routes, rather than domestic.
Over the summer, airlines reported load factors -- the percentage of seats filled -- of more than 80 percent. In years past, that would have prompted eager airlines to add capacity, but no more.
As a result, airlines, including the low-cost ones, have raised their base fares.
Even the sales that were offered this fall for non-holiday travel were not as cheap as last year, said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com.
For example, whenever Virgin America entered a new market a year or two ago, it typically offered introductory fares of $89 or $99 one-way. But when the airline announced that it would launch service at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport in December, introductory fares were $129 to $139.
"The truth is (that) fares are creeping up, and they needed to go up to keep airlines in business," Hobica said.
While consumers can expect to pay more for holiday air travel, experts offered a few tips on how to pay as little as possible.
For one, check out airfares in the next few weeks, then plan on buying tickets for Thanksgiving by mid-October. For Christmas travel, plan on buying no later than early November.
"The key is to search and search and sign up for airfare alerts," Hobica said. "I really suggest that people shop around and check every day."
Experts don't see incredible deals to any one destination, although airfares to Europe during Thanksgiving week cost the same as other weeks this fall.
Waiting for a last-minute deal won't work this year because the holiday travel season is shorter than usual, with Christmas and New Year's Day falling on Saturdays, said Tom Parsons, founder of Bestfares.com. As a result, people are likely to take off fewer days from work than if the holidays fell in the middle of the week, he said.
Traveling on a different day of the week could save you a little bit, as fares are cheaper on the Tuesdays and Wednesdays of the holiday weeks.
"Don't travel on any Sunday, because you'll get hit with the highest premiums on peak holidays, and in most cases airlines don't run their special fares on Sunday anyway," Parsons said.