TIME Saving & Spending

The Secret to Getting a Ridiculously Cheap Thanksgiving Flight

Aerial view of airplane
Stephan Zirwes—Brand X/Getty Images

Every travel agency is saying something different, but there are some tips that aren't up for debate

For years, travel search engines have scoured through their dense databases to determine the best day to book your Thanksgiving flights. This year, like every year, there’s a lot of mixed messages on what to do if you’ve procrastinated on booking tickets. Here’s what the big players are advising for cheap domestic U.S. air tickets:

  • Kayak: Book in early November, about two to four weeks before Thanksgiving.
  • Skyscanner: Two weeks prior to Thanksgiving.
  • Orbitz: This Wednesday, Thursday or Saturday. If not then, then before Nov. 18.
  • Cheapair: It depends on way too many things.

So what’s the takeaway? It’s better to be safe and book flights now, but you if you’re a risk taker, you can wait until the beginning of November to book your flights. But try not to wait until the week of Thanksgiving. It’s also important to weigh the risks of an unexpected fare hike in light of what your benefits of waiting actually are. These hyped “savings” are usually only about 5 to 10% less than the average fare, which amounts to $15 to $30 if your ticket costs $300.

In fact, since airline fares are notoriously difficult to understand, often the better question to ask is what not to do when you’re booking Thanksgiving flights.

Here are a few tips that travel search engines all agree on:

Don’t book a departure flight on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (Nov. 26), or a return flight on the Sunday after Thanksgiving (Nov. 30).

Airfares increase as flights get fuller, and the Wednesday and Sunday flanking the Thanksgiving holiday are when the most people are traveling. A simple airfare search shows just how much more expensive it is to book travel on one of these days. In some cases, fares are up to twice as high.

If you have to book for Wednesday or Sunday, then book your tickets as early as possible.

If you’re locked into a Wednesday departure flight, aim for a Friday or Tuesday return flight, which is around 25% cheaper than returning on Saturday, Sunday or Monday, according to an analysis by Cheapair.

Booking a return flight on Sunday results in the most dramatic airfare spike, and there’s not really much you can do to save money other than to book your departure flight on Thanksgiving Day. But the tradeoff of sacrificing a chunk of your holiday is a discount of only about 10%, so it may make more sense to pick a different day—even if it’s Wednesday. In general, having a Sunday return flight means you’re stuck with a sky-high ticket price.

Consider booking a departure flight or return flight on Thanksgiving Day—or both.

If you depart and return on Thanksgiving Day, your fare may be up to 30% cheaper than the average price, according to Kayak. And even if you only depart (and not return) on Thanksgiving, those savings are particularly meaningful when applied to longer, more expensive flights. For example, flying the JFK-LAX route departing on Thanksgiving instead of the day before can save you nearly $100.

Don’t book flights in groups.

If you’re booking as a family and there are only a few flights left in the lowest fare category, it’s possible the airline will bump the entire party up to the next fare category, according to Cheapair. That doesn’t mean you can’t travel as a family, though: you just might have to book each person’s ticket individually.

Check other smaller airports nearby.

There’s often regional and even international airports near the ORDs, JFKs and LAXs of major U.S. cities. If you’re in Chicago, for example, consider Chicago Midway Airport instead of O’Hare; if you’re in Los Angeles, consider Long Beach Airport instead of LAX. Both are cheaper airports than their neighboring giants, according to Cheapflights.com, which ranked the nation’s 101 most affordable airports.

Check smaller airlines.

The five biggest U.S. airlines—American, United, Delta, Southwest and JetBlue—all increased their base fares slightly despite lower fuel prices and a worldwide fear of Ebola. While the effect on consumers is not yet clear, it’s also worth checking out smaller airlines like Spirit, Frontier and Virgin.

Read next: The Old Advice on When to Buy Flights Is Wrong (And So Is the New Advice)

TIME ebola

Why One Airline Flies To West Africa Despite Ebola

"It is our humanitarian duty to operate there"

Several major airlines including British Airways and Emirates have suspended service to Ebola-stricken regions of West Africa in response to a rapidly worsening Ebola outbreak, and Americans seem to agree with the service halts: 58% of people polled in a recent survey from NBC News want to ban all incoming flights from West African countries with Ebola.

But two airlines—Brussels and Royal Air Maroc, Morocco’s largest airline—have continued serving Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

Brussels Airlines says it has no plans to stop flying into Guinea, Sierra Leone or Liberia in the immediate future. “It is our humanitarian duty to operate there,” said Geert Sciot, a vice president at Brussels Airlines. “Without our fights it would become almost impossible for medical staff to reach the country.”

In recent days, health and governmental officials have warned that a shortage of flights limits the ability to get aid to the region and ultimately could worsen the global Ebola crisis.

Sciot, who said that the airline has made flights to Africa a focus of their service for decades, said that the World Health Organization and other health groups had directly asked senior airline leadership to continue service to West Africa. Health groups also partnered with Brussels Airlines to implement measures to ensure safety for the passengers and crew.

All passengers leaving the region have their temperatures taken and are screened with a questionnaire; patients with Ebola symptoms are not allowed to fly. Airline crew are not permitted to spend the night in at-risk locations, so they travel on a Brussels flight to Senegal when they need to stay overnight in West Africa.

“It’s absolutely safe for us as an airline, for our passengers and for our crew, to operate these flights,” said Sciot.

Despite conducting what he described as a public service, Sciot acknowledged the potential fallout from people who are concerned that flying to West Africa may help spread Ebola.

Part of that attention undoubtedly surrounded the death of Thomas Eric Duncan, the only person to die of Ebola on American soil. Duncan flew on Brussels Airlines from Liberia en route the United States before exhibiting symptoms of the disease.

Sciot said that compared to last year, about the same number of people fly on the route and revenue is comparable, though there is a wait list for cargo space.

“For our image, I don’t think we benefit from this at all,” he said. “We get a lot media requests linked to a disease.”

MONEY Airline Stocks

Airline Stocks Are Sinking—and Ebola Is Only Partly to Blame

Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
Assurances about Ebola safety from CDC Director Tom Frieden apparently fell on deaf ears on Wall Street. Tami Chappell—Reuters

Airline stocks got hammered this morning after the first official case of Ebola was confirmed in a Texas patient. But calm down: Investors have a long history of overreacting to deadly diseases.

Shares of major U.S. airlines descended about 4% Wednesday morning, and investors are blaming Ebola.

The CDC and Texas Health Department confirmed the first official diagnosis of Ebola in the U.S., in a man who had traveled to Dallas from Liberia.

CDC Director Tom Frieden was quick to point out that “there’s all the difference in the world between the U.S. and parts of Africa where Ebola is spreading. The United States has a strong health care system and public health professionals who will make sure this case does not threaten our communities.”

Those assurances apparently fell on deaf ears on Wall Street, where investors pushed the stocks of major carriers such as United Airlines UNITED CONTINENTAL HLDG. UAL 0.4047% , American Airlines AMERICAN AIRLINES GROUP INC AAL 3.4823% , and Delta DELTA AIR LINES INC. DAL 4.0084% lower in early morning trading.

UAL Price Chart

UAL Price data by YCharts

Anytime diseases arise that could restrict air travel — in this case, to and from various parts of West Africa — airline shares are among the first to see a reaction.

Last year, for instance, global airline stocks took a tumble on worries of the spread of bird flu. Before that, in early 2009, the outbreak of swine flu pushed airline stocks to double-digit losses amid concern that the disease might curtail travel at a time when the economy was already faltering due to the global financial crisis. And before that, in 2003, the first signs of SARS drove airline stocks lower on fears that international travel — in particular to and from Asia — would be hurt.

In this case, though, even airlines that do not travel in West Africa — for instance, Southwest Airlines SOUTHWEST AIRLINES CO. LUV 1.8647% — have been hit.

LUV Price Chart

LUV Price data by YCharts

To be sure, Southwest is headquartered in Dallas, which is where the first U.S. Ebola case was reported. But the fact that an airline like Southwest is being affected makes Morningstar analyst Neal Dihora think that “this might be about something else.”

That something might have to do with oil prices. Oil prices have fallen recently to below $100 a barrel. This is generally good news for airline stocks, since that means a major input cost is headed lower, Dihora says.

But there comes a time in every oil cycle, he points out, where investors wonder if oil prices are headed lower for a reason — as in, is this a sign of further troubles for the global economy?

It’s too soon to say if that’s the case. Many observers are currently chalking up falling oil prices to the strengthening dollar.

But for the moment, it seems that this worry about the global economy is what’s really driving the sector — and the emotional reaction to Ebola only compounded the situation.

TIME Aviation

Flights in Chicago Slowly Return to Normal After Control Center Fire

Flight Cancellations Continue At Chicago's O'Hare After Yesterday's Fire
The arrival and departure display at O'Hare International Airport shows a list of cancelled flights on Sept. 27, 2014 in Chicago. Scott Olson—Getty Images

More than 2,000 cancelled flights and delays

The Federal Aviation Administration said Monday that it expects a Chicago-area air traffic control center to be fully operational in a couple weeks, after a fire there Friday led to thousands of canceled and delayed flights.

The fire at the air traffic control center in Aurora, Ill. led to more than 2,000 canceled flights on Friday at Midway and O’Hare airports. By Sunday, O’Hare Airport was about 60% operational while Midway was about 75% operational, according to the FAA, after Aurora-based traffic controllers relocated to facilities across the Midwest. Delays continued to persist on many flights.

The air-traffic controllers will continue to work at other facilities until the Chicago center is fully operational, which is expected to happen by Oct. 13

TIME Airlines

Massive Flight Cancellations as Air France Pilots Go on Strike

An Air France Airbus A330 aircraft takes off at Charles-de-Gaulle airport
An Air France aircraft takes off at Charles de Gaulle Airport, near Paris, on Sept. 14, 2014 Christian Hartmann—Reuters

Pilots are protesting cost-cutting measures

A weeklong workers strike that began Monday has caused Air France to cancel over half of all its flights, as pilots protest cost-cutting measures.

Six out of 10 flights were canceled, Reuters reports, with similar cancellations expected in the days to come. Pilots are striking to protest the airline’s expansion of its low-cost operations.

Air France announced last week a plan to move much of its operations in Europe to the company’s cheaper subsidiary, Transavia, and base some flights out of foreign countries to save approximately $1.3 billion, the Associated Press reports. Pilots claim the airline is moving jobs outside of France in order to pursue cheaper taxes and cheaper labor.

Another, briefer pilots strike was planned for the German airline Lufthansa but was ultimately called off. Many European carriers have been forced to restructure and adjust their business models as they face competition from cheaper rivals.

[Reuters]

TIME National Security

Study: Passport Officers Struggle to Spot Fake Photo IDs

Officers failed to recognize faces were different from ID photos 15% of the time in a test situation

Officials charged with issuing passports mistakenly accepted photo identification displaying a different person 14% of the time, according to the results of a study published Monday.

The study asked officials to accept or reject someone based on whether a displayed photo matched the person before them. They mistakenly accepted someone with a different photo displayed almost 15% of the time and mistakenly rejected someone whose real photo was displayed 6% of the time.

“At Heathrow Airport alone, millions of people attempt to enter the UK every year. At this scale, an error rate of 15% would correspond to the admittance of several thousand travellers bearing fake passports,” said Rob Jenkins, a psychology researcher at the University of York and study co-author.

Officers fared even worse on a separate test that asked them to match a current photo with identification photos taken two years prior. They matched the photos incorrectly 20% of the time, a figure equivalent to the performance of an untrained control group.

The study, which tested 27 Australian passport officers, found that training had little influence on officers’ ability to identify faces on passports correctly. The best way to address faulty identification is to hire people who are innately better at identifying faces, researchers concluded.

“This study has importantly highlighted that the ability to be good at matching a face to an image is not necessarily something that can be trained,” said University of Aberdeen professor Mike Burton, a study co-author. “It seems that it is a fundamental brain process and that some people are simple more adept at it than others.”

TIME Infectious Disease

Getting Sick From Planes Is Way Less Likely Than You Think

interior of plane
Martial Colomb—Getty Images

From Ebola to the common flu, viruses don't jump from 32D to 12C all that easily

The person next to you on your eight-hour flight is clearly not feeling well—coughing, running to the lavatory frequently. Great, you think. I’m going to catch some horrible virus.

Actually, probably not. Although most of us would swear that we caught a flu as the result of air travel, airliners are not great at spreading infectious diseases among passengers. (Bacteria is another story, though. See the 6 Germiest Places on a Plane for what to be careful about.) According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigation, if a suspected tuberculosis carrier was aboard a jet, the agency wouldn’t expect exposure to possible infection to extend beyond two rows in either direction.

Airliners are, however, very good at delivering infectious diseases to entire countries. The SARS breakout in Canada in 2003, which sickened 400 people and killed 44, was traced to a single airline passenger—the index patient—who traveled from Hong Kong to Toronto and fell ill after she arrived home. Most of the cases were hospital-acquired, however, including healthcare workers themselves. SARS seemed to have skipped the airline passengers altogether.

Likewise, the chance of catching Ebola from a fellow passenger is remote. The virus is spread through direct contact with infected bodily fluids, not by sitting in a middle seat. “The one thing we have as an advantage is the lack of airborne transmissibility,” says Dr. David R. Shlim, president the International Society of Travel Medicine. “It’s not likely to get in an airplane and then float down the aisle.”

The World Health Organization, which plays traffic cop to the planet’s disease vectors, has warned reasonably for travel restrictions for anyone suspected of having Ebola. Airport and health authorities in Lagos and Monrovia are screening passengers for symptoms before they board and anyone stricken with such symptoms is unlikely to be able to travel, although it’s certainly not impossible. In the U.S., the CDC mans quarantine stations at international airports, such as John F. Kennedy in New York City and Newark Liberty in New Jersey, that act as the front-line defense against infectious visitors.

The bigger issue is that a virulent illness—SARS, MERS, and perhaps some superbug lurking somewhere waiting for a ticket out—can be delivered around the globe with relative ease given the expansion in air travel. A million passengers a day enter the United States, according to the Customs and Border Protection agency. “Diseases that used to smolder can now move more quickly. You can get anywhere in 24 hours,” says Shlim. “All the public health officials know about that and are concerned about it.” Consider chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus that causes fever and joint pain. According to the CDC, the chikungunya virus reached the Americas via the islands of the Caribbean in late 2013. “There is a risk that the virus will be imported to new areas by infected travelers,” the CDC notes. Sure enough, a case was discovered in Florida this year.

The WHO hasn’t gone so far as recommending a travel embargo to the Ebola-affected nations, but that would be the logical progression if the outbreak can’t be reined in with the current program, called Ebola Virus Disease Outbreak Response Plan. During Canada’s SARS outbreak, the WHO issued a travel advisory that recommended that tourists avoid the Toronto area. It’s not known whether the advisory stopped SARS from spreading, but it did severely damage Canada’s tourism industry before being withdrawn after a few days after the Canadian government protested the advisory.

Stopping the movement of people is the ultimate way of keeping a viral disease in check geographically. But in the more connected world of global logistics it will be increasingly difficult to do so. Although ebola is terrifying in that there is no widely available remedy, there’s no reason to change your flight plans, even to Africa.

That doesn’t mean people won’t. “I can’t think of any example of one person got on a plane and 30 people got off sick,” Shlim notes. The biggest concern on your next jet ride isn’t going to be Ebola. It’s more like measles, which is very contagious. The risk there isn’t from a third-world passenger arriving from Africa. It’s more likely a 7-year American kid who hasn’t been vaccinated.

TIME Travel

Delta Tops Airline Performance Rankings

Delta Airlines Inc. Terminal Ahead Of Earnings Figures
A Delta Air Lines Inc. airplane departs Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, July 18, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

United ranked last on the annual list

Delta Airlines is the best all around pick for consumer fliers, according to Airfarewatchdog’s annual rankings. While the other legacy carriers, United and American, continue to struggle at the bottom of the list, Delta rose to the top spot from number six last year.

The list uses data on flight cancellations, on-time arrivals, baggage mishandling, denied boardings and customer satisfaction to rank America’s eight largest airlines. United rounded out the list with the lowest overall score, unsurprising given its bottom rank in customer satisfaction and number of denied boardings.

Discount carriers fared well in customer satisfaction scores, but that didn’t translate into high rankings in overall performance. Customers ranked JetBlue first and Southwest second for satisfaction, despite their low scores in flight cancellations and on-time arrivals. JetBlue in particular was hit hard by extreme weather earlier this year at its New York City headquarters and in Boston, where it also has major operations.

TIME Aviation

Airlines Get Guidelines on Handling Ebola

Medical staff take a blood sample from a suspected Ebola patient at the government hospital in Kenema
Medical staff take a blood sample from a suspected Ebola patient at the government hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone, on July 10, 2014 Tommy Trenchard—Reuters

The CDC says anyone who may have been exposed to the virus should not board a commercial flight until they have undergone 21 days of monitoring

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidelines for airline personnel on how to handle travelers who may have Ebola virus. The recommendations follow international efforts to contain an outbreak of the disease that has killed more than 800 people in West Africa.

If a passenger is suspected to have Ebola during a flight, the CDC says they should be separated from other travelers and that cabin crew must wear disposable gloves if there is a possibility of contact with that person’s bodily fluids.

Airline captains are required by law to report to the CDC any individuals suspected of carrying the Ebola virus before landing in the U.S.

The center also urged travelers who may have been exposed to Ebola to seek clearance from a doctor before traveling abroad.

“People who have been exposed to Ebola virus disease should not travel on commercial airplanes until there is a period of monitoring for symptoms of illness lasting 21 days after exposure. Sick travelers should delay travel until cleared to travel by a doctor or public health authority,” said the CDC in its statement.

Cabin-cleaning staff have also been advised to take extra precautions.

TIME Australia

Australian Flight Attendant Reminds Cabin to Flush Drugs Down Toilet

Qantas Returns to Profit as Emirates Tie-Up Boosts Long-Haul
A Jetstar plane leaves Kingsford Smith Airport in Sydney on Aug. 29, 2013 Jeremy Piper—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Such announcements are routine, but this employee's words were "poorly chosen," Australian airline Jetstar said

Australia’s reputation as a haven perennially secure from terrorist threats may have come into question recently, but it seems that air travel in the country is still a pretty lax affair.

The Daily Telegraph, a Sydney newspaper, reports that a flight attendant on domestic airline Jetstar kindly reminded passengers aboard a Sydney-bound flight to flush their drugs and other contraband down the aircraft toilet prior to landing. There were, she said, “sniffer dogs and quarantine officers” waiting in the domestic terminal.

A number of passengers were returning from the Splendour in the Grass music festival — which could explain why, upon the flight attendant’s announcement, there was allegedly a mad dash for the lavatory.

Australian airlines are indeed required to make a “quarantine announcement” if such measures are being taken at the final destination. Jetstar told the Telegraph that the words of this particular employee — who, according to the initial report, is “casually employed” — were “poorly chosen.”

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