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Holiday airfares take off at Tampa International Airport

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Published:   |   Updated: November 5, 2013 at 05:49 PM

You may be in for a bigger shock than usual when you book a holiday flight from Tampa International Airport for Thanksgiving or Christmas this year.

Average round-trip airfares booked outbound from Tampa for the Christmas travel season are 17.3 percent higher at $437.33 than a year ago — the largest percentage increase among 15 major U.S. regions, Travelocity booking data prepared for The Tampa Tribune shows.

Thanksgiving round-trip airfares from Tampa are up 11.6 percent from a year ago to an average of $349.18 — the fifth highest percentage gain nationwide, the on-line ticket agency reported.

While the holiday increases are substantial, prices from Tampa remain below the national average, thanks to the Tampa airport’s historically low competitive airfares.

But this season is a challenge to thrifty travelers and procrastinators — those hoping for a sale will likely be out of luck this year, travel specialists said.

“The notion of a last-minute deal is not a myth, but don’t count on it this year,” said Joel Frey, Travelocity Contributing Editor. “There’s not just one reason for the price increases.

“If you look at supply and demand dating back to 2008, airlines are right-sizing the number of seats in a market and that’s created record load factors,” he said. “With airline mergers and the improving economy, more people are vying for fewer seats.”

Southwest Airlines, the busiest carrier at Tampa International, does not book flights on websites beyond its own, so its trends were not included in the Travelocity report.

But Southwest’s most recent quarterly report indicated its average one-way fare had increased 11.3 percent and bookings for November and December are strong.

“Year over year, we have seen some slight increases in our average fares,” Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger said.

“As with all holiday travel, flexibility is the key. The busiest days generally have the highest fares, but with some flexibility in dates, customers find lower fares.”

George Hobica, founder and president of Airfarewatchdog, which tracks airfares but does not sell tickets, said fares for shrewd shoppers might not be that much higher than last year.

“But travel on Thanksgiving Day and return the Saturday after,” Hobica said. “Flying the Saturday before Christmas and returning the Saturday after will be cheapest.”

Hobica suggests travelers search flights on Allegiantair.com, (from St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport), Southwest.com, Spiritair.com, and FlyFrontier.com separately from the usual comparative sites like Kayak and Expedia.

“Those airlines do not list their fares or their cheapest fares on any third-party website,” said Hobica, whose Airfarewatchdog site lists unadvertised specials.

There is a little good news for Tampa from the Travelocity report.

Even with the holiday increases, Tampa’s average outbound average fare for Christmas is $12.67 lower than the national average of $450, which Travelocity regards as a “price to beat” gauge for airfare shopping.

Tampa’s fares beat those booking from Los Angeles at an average price of $669.05 and Chicago,at an average price of $664.89.

Tampa’s outbound Thanksgiving round trip fares are $65.82 lower than the national average of $415. But Tampa ranked highest in percentage gain of inbound Thanksgiving round-trip fares with a 15.6 percent increase to $403.45, year-over-year, and second with inbound Christmas fare increases at 12.5 percent to an average of $421.13.

Travelocity’s planners offered some advice on how travelers can try to mitigate this season’s trends.

Travelers should expect a steep increase in Thanksgiving fares that airlines post beginning Sunday, Travelocity reported. Historic prices from the past three years indicate a spike in Christmas fares beginning six weeks out, which is Nov. 13.

In recent years, there’s been a $26 decline in Christmas fares from Dec. 4 to Dec. 10 over the previous week, followed by a $50 increase the following week.

“I tend to book four to five weeks in advance,” Frey said.

tjackovics@tampatrib.com

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