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Holiday travelers wait longer to book flights

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Cautious consumers hold out for deals

By The Staff

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Holiday travelers waited a little longer to book their flights this year, likely holding out for better deals and waiting to see if they would still have a job. And some aren't going at all.

Travelocity reports that the average advance purchase fell to 55 days for Thanksgiving travel this year. That's 2.6 days later than last year's average.

People flying in late December — around Christmas — waited to buy until 88 days in advance, down from 96 days last year, for domestic trips. For international trips, the average purchase was made 7.5 days later, or 110 days in advance.

Travelers have been watching fares fall all year and may have bet they'd get a better deal by waiting.

Airlines have tried to raise fares by tacking on $20 surcharges for peak days around Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, some carriers ran sales that included the holiday travel periods, said Henry Harteveldt, an analyst who tracks travel at Forrester Research in San Francisco.

He said many of the hotels they survey report getting 20 percent or more of their bookings within a week of the arrival date.

Travelers "just want to make sure with full confidence that they'll have the money to spend and that the price is right," Harteveldt said. "Until we see meaningful improvement in the economy — jobs coming back, wages going up — the consumer is going to be very, very hesitant in buying any discretionary item."

Travelocity said average domestic airfares fell 7 percent from a year ago, to $398 for departures between Dec. 20 and Jan. 3. International fares fell 11 percent to $793.

For hotel stays during that period, domestic rates averaged $172 per night, down 9 percent from last year. International hotel rates fell 8 percent to $221.

Maritz Research estimated that almost 1.6 million fewer people would travel during the holiday season. Its phone poll conducted between Oct. 15 and 21 found that about 23 percent of people plan to travel, down from 27 percent in 2005.

Why are people staying home? Financial concerns kept 31 percent home, while swine flu worries were a factor for another 14 percent. Another 14 percent said they or someone in their household had lost a job within the past year, according to Maritz.

Consumers planned to spend about $854 each on their trips, down from $1,251 in 2005, according to Maritz.

How far will you travel this year for Thanksgiving? Take the Monitor's poll at the lower right of the homepage.