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Priceline boils travel deals down to the day

The online travel services company introduces a holiday travel calendar that highlights the best flight dates for those with more time than money.

A new service from Priceline.com is helping budget travelers find the cheapest days to fly home for the holidays.

Norwalk, Conn.-based Priceline on Friday introduced a "Best Days For Best Deals" holiday travel calendar--an index of average daily prices on all domestic flights. The service automates a trick long used by budget travelers to find off-peak flight dates that airlines are willing to unload at discount prices.

For instance, one Phoenix resident used the index to determine when he could fly to Chicago during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend without spending more than $200. He found a $196 round-trip ticket departing Thursday--Thanksgiving Day--and returning Monday. Although he will be flying non-peak times and will spend part of the Thanksgiving holiday in airports, the price represented a steep discount from the average fares for travel on the Wednesday and Sunday surrounding Thanksgiving--the most expensive days to fly.

Numerous online travel sites recommend that shoestring travelers try non-peak days. In a list of tips for travelers, Hotwire recommends checking prices on the dates immediately before or after a traveler's originally planned departure and arrival days. In its popular Last Minute Deals section, Travelocity.com allows travelers to check fares for destinations before picking specific dates, enabling them to strike a balance between budget and time constraints.

Priceline's color-coded calendar ranks days according to ticket availability and typical savings. Red days are peak travel days, where ticket availability is tightest and prices are likely to be highest--times for budget travelers to avoid at all costs. Yellow days offer average availability and only nominal discounts. Green days offer good availability and discount possibilities.

The absolute cheapest days to fly--typically Thanksgiving and Christmas days themselves--feature an airplane-in-a-star logo. On those days, seats on airplanes are plentiful and airlines that sell tickets through Priceline are most willing to accept customers' low-ball offers.

According to Priceline, the best days this year for budget tickets are the holidays themselves, in addition to Nov. 18, 28 and 29, and December 3, 9 and 11. The most expensive days--if seats are available at all--are Nov. 21 and 25, and Dec. 21 and 26.

Those dates probably won't come as a surprise to students, retirees, freelancers and other people with more time than money: The cheapest flights are usually for off-peak travel dates including holidays, "red-eye" flights and midweek flights to non-business destinations. But now, budget travelers can check out a simple online calendar instead of testing dozens of combinations of dates to find the cheapest fare on their own.

"Flexible travelers will think out of the box," said Pauline Frommer, executive editor of Frommers.com and special travel adviser to Priceline. "They'll avoid peak travel days, like the day before Thanksgiving, when crowds and tight airport security could combine for record-length waits. They're also aware that the airlines, on average, are flying only 65 percent full."

The calendar and budget calculators come as Americans continue to express concern about flying after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. As a result, bookings on most major U.S. airlines are down about 35 percent from the same period last year, and airlines are having fare sales even during the holidays.

The airlines' price wars have spilled over into an even more heated war among online travel sites--even though, ironically, many travel experts say that online deals are becoming increasingly rare. Online sites such as Travelocity and Expedia offered incredibly cheap fares in the late 1990s, but with an estimated 21 million Americans booking travel online--75 percent more than last year--the best deals are harder to find.