If you haven't given much thought to your holiday travel plans this year, you should probably start soon.
We took a look at historical pricing data along our most popular routes to get a sense of how this year's holiday fare forecast stacks up against last year. The verdict? When it comes to airfare, the early bird doesn't always get the worm, but it sure stands a better chance.
For example, we checked out Thanksgiving dates traveling from Boston BOS to Miami MIA of last year. Folks who began their search as early as May would have seen fares going for as much as $672 round-trip for a 5-day trip. Meanwhile, those who waited until November 19 could still score a seat for $248 for a 4-day trip, so long as they were willing to travel on the actual day of Thanksgiving.
And last year's lowest published fare on September 30 for this route was $270, departing BOS on November 18, returning from MIA on November 28. This year? Those same dates can be booked for $206.
It's a similar story for fares over the December holidays. On June 24, 2018, someone booking Los Angeles LAX to New York JFK would have paid $524 round-trip for peak travel from December 20-31. Procrastinators who waited until December 20 to fly out the same day, December 20, and return December 31 would have paid $574, just $50 more.
This doesn't necessarily mean you should wait to buy your ticket. While there are low fares that can and do appear at the last minute, the travel dates and flight times may not appeal to everyone. It's unlikely that the 11-day Christmas trip mentioned above would suit most work schedules.
Those who begin their searches earlier may not find anything that stands out as "cheap," at least when compared to non-holiday periods, but they will find earlier fares to be much more reasonable for travel over peak and slightly off-peak flight schedules.
For families with little to no flexibility who can only travel on a very specific set of dates, it makes sense to book early in order to land reasonable fares on popular flight times and travel dates. You'll have early access to seating and better odds of sitting together when booking on the early side.
As of right now, there are still plenty of decent fares for November and December, but will they stick around?
There are no guarantees, so you'd be wise to book very soon.
How to Find a Cheap Flight for Holiday Travel
As you begin this year's search for a cheap holiday fare, remember these 10 tips.
Don't Wait Too Long
Again, a really great fare can pop up at any time, and that holds true for holiday fares. But waiting around until the last minute is a risk that most folks don’t want to take when it comes to planning for the holidays. That said, the earlier you start hunting, the better. If you spot something reasonable—or better yet, cheap—don’t dawdle. Book first, sort out the details later. If you realize after that your flight doesn't suit the rest of your family or friends, you have 24 hours to cancel without penalty under DOT law.
Let me guess. You want to depart the Wednesday before Thanksgiving at around 6pm and return Sunday afternoon? So does everyone else. That’s why those fares are the most expensive. As our data suggests, if your goal is to get there as cheaply as possible, search for off-peak flights at unpopular travel times, or longer stays whenever possible. The more flexible you are, the better your odds at finding a deal. If you can manage to leave work a day early, try a 6am flight on Tuesday morning. You’ll find some of the lowest fares are for travel at odd hours on the day of Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Picky Travelers Should Definitely Book Early
For those with very specific flight preferences who need a certain departure time or a particular seat on the plane, or even those with large families traveling together, it’s a good idea to stake your claim sooner rather than later. Sure, it may end up costing extra but the more desirable seats on the most convenient flight times are the first to fill up.
It's a Gamble, but Sometimes Fares Drop Later in the Season
Feeling lucky? If you’re okay taking the risk, you could try and hold out until a few weeks before the holiday. Airlines have been known to offer last-minute reductions on early morning and late-night red-eye flights. You’re essentially playing a game of chicken with airline revenue managers, and there’s no guarantee fares will actually drop last minute.
Connecting vs. Nonstop
As with any time of year, connecting flights are typically cheaper than nonstops. Of course, that also increases your odds of a delay, or worse, a cancellation. If you do opt for a cheaper connecting flight, try and route yourself through southern airports less likely to be hit by winter storms, like Phoenix, Dallas, and Atlanta.
Don’t Expect to Pay What You’ve Paid in Previous Years
Capacity cuts due to the recent 737-Max fiasco could mean fewer available seats and higher fares, at least along some routes. Increased baggage fees are another factor to consider. That said, some passengers could end up paying less this year! In markets where new service has been added, more competition could lead to lower fares.
Consider Leaving the Country
Airfares don’t always make sense, and this is especially true around the holidays. International fares can sometimes cost less than domestic flights at this time. Last year, a peak holiday flight from New York's JFK to London Heathrow (departing December 20, returning January 2) could be had for just $498 round-trip, even as late as October 1. Meanwhile, a flight from JFK to Orlando booked on the very same day for nearly the same travel dates was going for $516 round-trip! Why not use the holidays as an opportunity to get some proper traveling done?
Look for Bargains in Business
With fewer business folks traveling, the holidays are also a great time to find deals on international Business Class. British Airways often has excellent discounts on biz class seats to London and elsewhere in Europe.
If you've been squirreling away miles, the holidays could be the time to put 'em to use. That is, assuming there's availability for your flight.
Fares Can Change Several Times in a Day
Make sure you're on top of price fluctuations by setting an airfare alert. You don't want to miss out on holiday flash sales or promo code deals which tend to sell out very quickly.