CLEVELAND - When football teams hit the gridiron, it's time to start thinking about holiday travel. This year, you'll have fewer choices because airlines have cut back service and many companies merged their operations. Some Southwest Airlines bargain flights are already sold out for the holidays.
We crunched the numbers for flights to 15 cities in October and December. We checked prices from Cleveland, Akron, and Pittsburgh to help you find the cheapest flights. Saving money on airfares is a game. If you're not willing to play, you will pay.
To find the best ticket price, you always have to be on the lookout. Airfarewatchdog is a travel site that hunts down the deals for you. The site's founder, George Hobica, said there isn't a good day to buy a ticket.
"The so-called sale fares on Tuesday are so astronomical, I kind of laugh when I see them. I thought they were roundtrip, but they are one way. They are twice what they used to be," Hobica explained.
You also have to be flexible. If you fly on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day, you will likely pay less for your ticket than flying before or after the holiday.
There are far fewer seats so you may not want to wait this year. You should watch the seat map on the routes you're traveling so you know when the plane is close to full. You can view the available seats on most travel websites that sell airline tickets. If you notice the plane isn't filling up, you may want to wait.
"I have seen the holiday airfares get reduced a week before because the airlines were charging too much and suddenly they figured well we better lower the price. It really is a complete crab shoot," Hobica said.
Hobica said he likely won't fly this year if he can't find a good deal. In Cleveland, your other option is to shop around.
"It's perfectly OK to airport hop. I don't think it's being unfaithful to Hopkins. It actually puts pressure on United when people start shopping around," Hobica said.
If you're headed to Florida, consider Toledo or Youngstown. Allegiant Air offers discount fares at both airports. You need to be flexible because the airline doesn't fly every day. In early December, flights are $68 to $85 one way to Orlando from Toledo.
During the Christmas holiday, you can get a flight for $270 round trip to Orlando on a nonstop flight from Toledo. On the day we checked, other airlines were charging $320 to $590 for travel around the same time for nonstop and one stop flights from Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Akron.
In Youngstown, Allegiant offers service to Myrtle Beach, Orlando, and Tampa. In Toledo, the airline flies to Daytona Beach, Orlando, and Tampa.
Cheapest airport in our test
Brian Barczyk of Brunswick drove to Pittsburgh and saved $200 per ticket. "We haven't done this before."
Pittsburgh was the cheapest airport in our comparison last year. It came in second in this test. The overall winner in our analysis of fall and holiday travel is the Akron-Canton Airport.
Fares averaged $83 cheaper than Cleveland for the fall and winter holidays. However, the airfares vary. In the first quarter of this year, government data showed Canton was $128 cheaper than Cleveland. (Note: The government data is delayed. We'll have second quarter airfares in late October).
The average price paid at Cleveland was the highest for the days and flights we checked. The Greater Cleveland Partnership tracks activity at Cleveland Hopkins, a hub airport.
"Hubs are generally more expensive because there is an infrastructure of support that goes along with the overall convenience of a hub," said Joe Roman, President and CEO of Greater Cleveland Partnership.
United charges a higher price for that convenience. Government data shows five of United's eight hubs, including Cleveland, make the top 10 for prices.
United responded with this statement: "Our nonstop flights, frequent service and international network attract business travelers, who may pay higher fares for the ability to book or change travel at the last minute, choose the most convenient flights and enjoy a superior class of service. Business travel boosts the economic development of our hub cities."
While the airport doesn't control fares, it's sharing feedback with the airlines. It points out that Cleveland offers more nonstop markets and flights than any other airport in Ohio or Western Pennsylvania. The airport's focus is on the value of a hub to a business traveler.
"Very often the value of flying nonstop vs. connecting at a time you choose outweighs the extra cost for a business person or a parent toting along small children," wrote Cleveland Airport System Communications Manager Jacqueline Mayo in a statement.
Hopkins added there are cheap airfares at Hopkins on certain airlines.
"Please note that the second largest airline at CLE is the largest low cost carrier in the USA, that also provides the majority of service at CAK," said Mayo.
In our analysis, we checked Southwest fares. They were often the cheapest fare out