When it comes to holiday travel plans, good things may come to those who waited.
The major U.S. airlines have cut many fares for the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons.
The airlines, in the midst of their worst year since at least 2005, may see the price-cutting as necessary in the face of a slumping economy that could cut into both leisure and business travel. Airfare experts say they typically don't see this kind of price-cutting until the last couple of weeks before big holidays.
Northwest Airlines started the rush Tuesday night with a broad holiday fare sale, and most other major carriers matched the prices Wednesday, according to Rick Seaney, chief executive of the travel Web site FareCompare.com.
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"It's by far the most broad-based fare sale we've tracked in at least 18 months," Seaney said Thursday, "and this is the earliest I've ever seen one."
Tom Parsons, chief executive of discount travel site Bestfares.com, said in many cases travelers can still find better deals by shopping around and considering alternate airports.
"I've been looking for this sale for two or three weeks," Parsons said. "When I finally saw it, it was kind of a letdown."
Parsons said the cuts ranged up to 25 percent off the previous price for tickets that must be bought 21 or 30 days ahead of travel. He said travelers using secondary airports that typically have higher prices will get the biggest breaks.
But there are cheaper fares available on routes where the big airlines compete with low-cost carriers such as Southwest, JetBlue and AirTran, he said.
Some of the sale fares have blackout dates on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 — the Sunday and Monday after Thanksgiving — and Dec. 20. And there are only a handful of "super off-peak" days, as Northwest calls them.
Some of the cuts are dramatic. Delta shaved the cheapest price for an Atlanta-Nashville round trip around Thanksgiving from nearly $500 to $238, Seaney said. The cheapest Minneapolis-Seattle flight is $248.
In most cases, the prices are good until at least late November.
Airlines aggressively raised fares and fuel surcharges last year and early this year but stopped when the economy slowed noticeably. The last broad fare hike was in early July, Seaney said.
Carriers would rather not be cutting prices now, but demand may be slowing faster than airlines can reduce the supply of available seats.
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said this month that because of the economic slowdown, "the world has changed" and there is no guarantee about future booking trends.
"We know that fares are higher compared to a year ago," Kelly told analysts. "We know the economy is in a complete recession ... we've got to be prepared for a weak economy and weaker demand, which I think is destined to happen."