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A Peek at Peak Travel

Travel pundits, airlines, hotels, travel services, even we at The Independent Traveler often throw the terms "peak" and "off-peak" travel around almost casually, as if we all understood what was meant by the terms. A closer "peek" into the topic, however, reveals a complex set of exceptions to the accepted rules of peak and off-peak travel.

On the whole, there are five concerns when discussing peak travel:
1) What day of the week is it?
2) What time of the day is it?
3) What time of the year is it?
4) Is it near a holiday?
5) Where are you going?

These issues will determine a few things: how much you pay for your ticket, how full the planes will be and whether or not things will go smoothly (planes will be on time, etc.). In general, airfares are lower, planes are less full, and on-time performance and other hassles are improved during off-peak travel times.

We'll look at each one, one at a time.

A note on the stats we've used: we didn't pick these numbers because they support our theories. A review of the past few years of similar numbers will show that the stats below are very much the norm.

What Day of the Week?
Off-peak travel is generally considered Monday afternoon-Thursday morning, with Saturdays thrown in for good measure in the summer.

Airlines frequently charge slightly lower fares for travel between Monday at noon and Thursday at noon, and on Saturday, while increasing fares significantly for Sunday, Monday morning, Thursday afternoon/evening, and Friday travel. During the summer, count Saturday as a peak travel day as well, and when it comes to Florida, it depends on which direction you travel on which days. Here's where things can get tricky: you probably won't be able to get out of a popular vacation spot like Orlando on a Sunday night or Monday morning, but you might be to get in.

What Time of Day Is It?
Here's a typical day in the life of the top ten domestic airlines' on-time performance (percentage of flights arriving on time):

600 - 659 AM 88.2
700 - 759 AM 91.3
800 - 859 AM 88.6
900 - 959 AM 86.4
1000 - 1059 AM 85.1
1100 - 1159 AM 84.1
1200 - 1259 PM 84.1
100 - 159 PM 84.1
200 - 259 PM 82.3
300 - 359 PM 82.2
400 - 459 PM 79.5
500 - 559 PM 78.4
600 - 659 PM 77.6
700 - 759 PM 76.5
800 - 859 PM 76.4
900 - 959 PM 76.8
1000 - 1059 PM 77.3
1100 - 559 AM 79.1

On-time performance peaks just after sunrise, declines steadily all day, then climbs again in the late-night hours. You're up to 15% more likely to be there on time if you fly in the morning than in the afternoon.

Best time to fly: morning
Worst time to fly: late afternoon/evening.

What Time of the Year Is It?
Time and day of travel issues are fairly simple to work around; seasonal and holiday peak periods require more careful planning.

The Art and Science of Seasonal Fluctuations
The art of negotiating peak and non-peak travel periods remains as much art as science, and as much brawn as brains. Typically, warm climates are popular in winter months, cooler climes during the summer months. However, it doesn't always work this way. For instance, wintertime is peak travel period for Hawaii, but would you automatically think that August is just as crowded? It is, as Hawaii's temperate clime attracts desert dwellers in droves.

"All the people who live in hot places, like Phoenix and Texas, will come to Hawaii during August," said Cathy Zadel, a Hawaii specialist (who also hosts some IT chats!) "People are out of school and on vacation, and it seems like all of California comes over during August for short vacations."

On-Time Performance by Month
It may surprise travelers to know that no one season seems worse than another for on-time performance. When measured by quarter, on-time performance for the top 10 airlines hovers around 75%, with little fluctuation.

For several years running the worst month to Travel has been June and the
best month to travel has been November. Both are surprising: June would seem to have the best weather, and thus fewer delays; November has Thanksgiving, the worst travel day of the year, and thus more delays. Right? The numbers say otherwise.

Is It Near a Holiday?
Holidays, in general, can be tough, especially Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Christmas and New Year's. And don't forget Spring Break, as well as Valentine's Day, on routes ranging from Hawaii, Key West, the Caribbean and Mexico, Las Vegas and countless ski lodges. If you're planning a romantic Valentine's Day proposal, you better plan ahead, because an impulsive elopement might cost dearly at the ticket counter.

Thanksgiving is an easy one: Wednesday is the heaviest travel day. On the return trip, the following weekend is often not all that bad, as folks tend to space their return flights out over the long weekend.

Holiday peak days depend heavily on what day of the week certain holidays fall on. For example; if New Year's Day falls on a Friday, peak travel might not happen until Sunday, Jan 3 or even Monday, Jan 4. If New Year's Day falls on a Monday, people may start to head back to work immediately on Tuesday, Jan 2.

One tip: in general, if you check blackout dates for fare sales, vacation packages, and your frequent flyer miles, these correspond closely to the peak travel dates.

Where Are You Going?
Other peak travel destinations and periods:

Summer: destinations throughout Europe, Hawaii, Canada, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, Maine and New Hampshire

Spring: (especially during Spring Break): Florida, the Bahamas, Mexico, some European cities, Carnival cruises, Southern California, New Orleans.

Winter: any attractive ski resort (especially in the Rockies and New England), most tropical or semitropical destinations and islands (especially the Caribbean), Costa Rica and other Central American destinations, Mexico, Disneyland and Disney World, many Pacific Rim countries (Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia), Israel (around holidays, political climate permitting).

Fall: New England and parts of Canada (for fall foliage), Australia, New Zealand (primarily in the late fall, as summer begins Down Under).

Tips for Peak Travel Periods
Here are some tips for getting where you need to go during peak travel periods:

Plan ahead, way ahead.
In the top travel destinations, airlines, hotels, and car rental companies rarely have reason to offer last-minute incentive deals. "Low season is low season, and high season is high season," Zadel said. You're not going to save a lot of money waiting for late-breaking deals; you're more likely not to be able to go at all.

Be flexible with dates and travel times.
Especially during peak travel times, the difference between flying Monday morning or Monday afternoon, or during the day vs. late at night, can mean big money. Ask your travel agent or the airline to check around for better rates.

Use any and all moneysaving tactics
For example: AAA members, AARP members, students and teachers, companions traveling together, credit card holders, and travelers who check with consolidators and discount reservations services may find considerable savings by flashing an ID card at the time of purchase, especially for peak travel periods when prices are high and universally available discounts few. There are hundreds of readily available deals out there; think about them before you buy; see below for links to more information on many of them.

When in doubt, do some research.
Here are some pertinent articles in the Traveler's Resource Center that will help you navigate the peak travel periods:
Travel Bargains
Consolidators Save Money on Plane Tickets
Getting the Best Hotel Rate
Senior Discounts

To discuss this and other Traveler's Ed articles, visit the Traveler's Ed Message Board.

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler

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