In summer, there are no cues — like a change in the weather or children going back to school — to suggest thinking about winter. But that’s exactly what savvy travelers should be doing, according to experts, when it comes to planning holiday trips.
“When are swimsuits on sale? In the winter. When are coats on sale? In the summer,” says Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, a service that finds bargain airfares for members. “It’s the same idea with winter holiday flights. While everyone else is booking summer and autumn flights now, right now is the period when you’re most likely to see a cheap Thanksgiving or Christmas flight pop up.”
Inflation and strong demand are already driving up fares. According to the airfare prediction app Hopper, domestic tickets over the Thanksgiving holiday are currently averaging $362 round-trip, up 17 percent compared to the pre-pandemic 2019 period. Christmas fares are worse, averaging $448 round-trip, up 20 percent over 2019.
Tickets could yet come down — Hopper normally recommends booking about a month out — but perennial holiday traffic tends to narrow the buy-before dates to about six weeks pre-Thanksgiving and up to three months in advance of Christmas.
Travel advisers say the flight havoc of 2022 — cancellations and delays compounded by crew shortages and capacity crowds — warrants thinking beyond price. “The uncertainty of connecting has pushed more customers onto direct flights,” says Gavin Miller, executive vice president of Travel Edge, an agency with advisers throughout North America. “So it’s not as much a question of price, but better availability.”
Decoding booking platforms
Top tips for securing the cheapest airfare for the holiday season:
- Don’t procrastinate. In general, travelers who began searching for flights on Hopper 90 days in advance of their trips saved 31 percent more on domestic trips than those who waited until three weeks before departure.
- Search for flights using flexible dates and airports. New, small carriers such as Breeze and Avelo and existing low-cost carriers like Allegiant often use secondary airports (i.e., Orlando-Sanford) instead of the city’s main airport.
- Fly when everyone else isn’t. In a typical week, this would be a Tuesday or Wednesday, when, according to Hopper, travelers save an average of 10 percent on domestic tickets compared to weekend dates. During the holiday period, avoid the few days before and after the major holidays.
- Celebrate early. Before the Thanksgiving rush and during the first few weeks of December are slower times to travel, meaning fares are cheaper.
Travel search engines provide clues to low-fare periods. Searching for flights using flexible dates and multiple airports on sites such as Google, Kayak, Hopper and Skyscanner will offer the broadest range of options. (Search Southwest Airlines separately, since it does not share reservation data with outside platforms.)
Google’s flight calendar provides a glimpse into demand for each calendar day, with daily rates listed for the route you’re searching. In November and December, the cheapest flights from Chicago to San Francisco, for example, recently started at $348 round-trip, with the lowest fares available the first week of November, the week before Thanksgiving, and between Dec. 1 and 13.
Kayak has a price-tracking tool that suggests the best time to buy a ticket on a given route. Recently, the least expensive tickets for Chicago to San Francisco on the primary Thanksgiving dates — out Nov. 23 and returning Nov. 27 — were $486 on the platform. You can monitor the fare by selecting “track prices” and entering your email address for updates.
Kayak’s calendar — which is color coded based on prices, with green for the cheapest days, pink for most expensive and yellow in between — provides a visual picture of the best and worst times to travel. Its calendar is mostly green for the first two weeks of November and Dec. 6-10. Except for Christmas Day, Dec. 25, it’s high for the last 10 days of the month.
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George Hobica, founder of the airfare comparison site Airfarewatchdog.com, has already booked his holiday travel. The key, he says, is to track bookings and be willing to cancel and rebook if the fares drop.
Because most airlines dropped their change fees on most tickets during the pandemic, fliers can cancel any existing booking and receive a credit that they can then use for a future ticket purchase. (This advice does not apply to ultra-low-cost carriers, such as Spirit Airlines, which tend to charge penalties for any changes, so read the fare rules before purchasing.)
“Be sure to keep checking after booking, because prices might go down and you can get a no-fee refund credit,” says Hobica, adding that the cheapest fares tend to be after the Thanksgiving rush to about mid-December.
Reschedule your holidays
For travelers willing to celebrate in new ways, the holiday months offer unexpected bargains.
Thanksgiving is “the hidden, best week of the year for international travel,” says Keyes. “Domestic fares are inflated, but for international trips, it’s actually a low-season week.”
During the last two months of the year, thrifty travelers can hear “Jingle Bells” done reggae style in the Caribbean or catch the holiday lights in London.
“If you can travel the first two weeks of November, before December 17 or after January 4, you can find rates often 50 percent lower than during the holiday weeks,” says Rob Stern, an adviser in Raleigh, North Carolina, who runs RobPlansYourTrip.com. “Some travelers who don’t celebrate Christmas will go on cruises from December 17 to 24 at surprisingly low rates.”
Elaine Glusac writes the Frugal Traveler column for The New York Times and is a national parks enthusiast based in Chicago.