If you haven’t started looking at your Christmas or New Year’s flight options yet (and you should if you plan on traveling for one of these holidays), you may be disappointed at what you find.
Since late summer, airfare experts have advised travelers to book holiday airfare as soon as possible to avoid paying a premium to fly during the season’s high-demand travel periods.
In terms of passenger traffic, this summer was the busiest ever at U.S. airports. So, it’s a safe bet to expect large crowds surrounding Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. After all, the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year, Nov. 27, was the busiest travel day all year.
Though consumers have seen some price relief on the airfare front in recent months, the supply and demand equation doesn’t get any easier as the holiday season draws closer.
“Airfare almost always goes one direction in the final weeks before travel, and it’s not down,” Scott Keyes, founder of airfare tracking site Going.com, told TPG.
At the same time, we know plenty of travelers who want to get away for Christmas and New Year’s but have yet to book. If you’re one of them, here are some tips and advice to abide by as you lock in airfare for the holidays.
Book holiday flights as soon as possible
Now is the time to book holiday flights if you haven’t already done so. That’s because prices for these flights often jump many months before the holiday season.
What to expect when looking to book Thanksgiving flights
The best time to book Thanksgiving flights would have been between three and seven months out, according to Going.com.
For those of us who waited, that’s worth noting for next year. Don’t lose hope, though.
Reward your inbox with the TPG Daily newsletter
Join over 700,000 readers for breaking news, in-depth guides and exclusive deals from TPG’s experts
“Just because we are outside of the Goldilocks window of time doesn’t mean you have no shot at getting a great deal, but your odds are lower,” Going.com spokesperson and travel expert Katy Nastro added. “The best advice is to book soon and keep a price alert on so that if the price does drop, you can call the airline up and have them rebook you, issuing a credit for the difference.”
When should you book? Very soon.
Booking app Hopper suggests locking in that Thanksgiving airfare in the coming days, by Oct. 14. Hopper suggests booking flights departing no later than the Monday leading into the holiday and on the Monday following Turkey Day (or later) to avoid the highest airfare.
What to expect when looking to book Christmas and New Year’s flights
For Christmas travel, the mantra used to be to book Christmas flights by Thanksgiving. However, airfare experts have recommended booking all holiday travel as soon as possible for the last couple of years. That includes Christmas and New Year’s.
In other words, there’s little upside to waiting.
“If you find flights with a convenient schedule and fares that fit your budget, book them,” Henry Harteveldt, airline industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research Group, told TPG. “Don’t try to game the system.”
You’ll find pretty consistent advice just about everywhere you look.
Google Flights projects the best deals for Christmas are available sometime in early October — much further out, the site said, than what it tracked last year. Hopper likewise recommends booking no later than Oct. 14.
“In recent years, due to the pandemic, you were more able to snag last-minute cheap deals on winter holiday flights,” Nastro said. “Far fewer people were flying and business travelers weren’t buying last-minute fares … banking on rock-bottom prices around the holidays is over.”
So, when should you fly? Hopper says the cheapest days to fly around Christmas will be Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, with the most expensive day to return falling on Dec. 26. The longer you can wait to return home, the better.
Can you book holiday flights now and change them later?
Booking all holiday travel at the same time this year may seem a bit daunting from a budgetary standpoint. Not to mention, sometimes it takes a while for holiday plans to solidify.
It begs the question: If you book now and find a cheaper flight later, can you change your trip? Or, if your plans change, can you cancel your flight? By and large, the answer to both is yes — but with some important caveats to know.
For the four largest U.S. carriers — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines — you can now change your ticket without paying a change fee. Generally, if you find a cheaper flight down the road, you can rebook and get airline flight credits for the price difference between the two flights, which you could use on a future trip. You can alternatively opt for a full refund when canceling certain higher-level tickets or when using miles in some programs.
As for this flexibility on American, Delta and United, it generally applies to domestic flights and all flights originating in North America, depending on the airline. Check your carrier’s individual policy if you’re looking to change an international flight.
Remember, American, Delta and United typically exclude basic economy tickets from this flexibility. So, if you think you might want to make a change later on, you’re better off booking a regular economy ticket instead of a highly restrictive one.
Is it too late to book holiday flights?
Sure, you might have gotten a better deal if you booked your holiday flights in August or September.
However, if you’re just now starting to check airfare for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s and are finding the prices a bit daunting, here are some tricks and tactics to keep in mind to help bring costs down and avoid headaches.
Be flexible with your travel dates
If you’re plugging in your destination and travel dates for the holidays and find prices are exorbitant, see if you can be a bit more flexible. While work, school and life don’t always allow for a lot of flexibility, having fewer requirements for your travel needs can help you capture the best deals.
For example, let’s say I’m looking to fly from Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) to Miami International Airport (MIA) for Thanksgiving, departing on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (Nov. 22) and returning on the busy Sunday after (Nov. 26).
I’ve now put a lot of “filters” on my travel, so I’m severely restricting the number of deals I can find.
The cheapest itinerary I found that fits all of these parameters goes for $558 on American Airlines.
Now, let’s try adding a little flexibility to my search. Can I work remotely on the days leading into and/or out of the holiday so I can leave a little earlier and come back a little later?
By departing on the Monday before Thanksgiving and returning the following Monday, I’ve opened my search up a lot. I can get a round-trip flight for $268, which saves me nearly 52%.
If you need to stay in a hotel for more nights because you’re extending your trip, remember that that can quickly offset what you’re saving on flights. However, if you are happy to stay with family for a few more days, it could be a way to save some cash and enjoy a longer getaway at the same time.
Opening up your search goes a long way to increasing your odds of finding better flight prices.
Fly on the holiday, if you can
If your search still isn’t turning up satisfactory prices for the days surrounding the holiday, one option you might want to explore is flying early on the holiday itself, whether it’s Christmas or New Year’s.
It’s not ideal, and we hate to miss precious time with family. However, prices can often be lower for flights on a holiday.
Hopper says Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will be the cheapest days to fly around the holiday, with prices down 26% from peak points.
I’ve also personally found that holiday morning flights can be relatively pleasant, with thinner crowds in the airports compared to the often chaotic days surrounding the major holidays.
Whether this is a realistic option depends, of course, on your family’s particular celebration plans. Still, it’s something to consider if you’re not finding any affordable flights immediately before or after the holiday.
Consider alternative destinations
Another way to skirt high holiday airfares is to go where the prices are lower. If you have to visit a particular city for the holidays and the prices are high, you don’t have a lot of wiggle room.
Consider this: Is there any chance of meeting family in an alternative city instead of traveling to someone’s house? Could you pick an alternative vacation destination around Christmas and New Year’s? Thinking outside the box can allow you to select airfare based on the best prices rather than being at the mercy of prices for a particular city.
To find a more affordable option, use Google Flights to show you airfare prices to places around the country — or the globe — on the dates you want to travel.
Hold a flight when possible
If you’ve found airfare you like but aren’t 100% sure of your plans yet, put a hold on it.
Some airlines will let you put a hold or fare lock on airfare if you find a price and itinerary that will work for your travel needs but are not ready to book just yet. It’s one of my favorite ways to give myself more time to make up my mind.
On United, you can pay a small fee to lock in airfare — a few dollars will generally get you a few days — after which you can either purchase the trip or cancel it.
Keep in mind, if the airline doesn’t allow you to hold a flight, federal regulations require the carrier to give you 24 hours to cancel and get a full refund, so it’s not a problem if you book your flight and then quickly change your mind.
Once again, if you find a better price later on, most airlines will let you cancel and switch to a new trip with no penalty (on domestic trips, at least), provided it wasn’t a basic economy fare.
Use Capital One Travel’s price protection feature
Another tool you can use if you are shopping for holiday airfare with travel credit cards like the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card is the Capital One free price protection feature.
With this feature, you can leverage Capital One’s relationship with Hopper to use the site’s airfare algorithms to suggest whether you book now or wait for prices to drop. This can make you eligible for a credit in the event the price unexpectedly drops.
If the price drops by a certain threshold, you may be eligible for a refund for the difference in the form of a travel credit. (Note: Capital One caps the credit at a maximum of $50.)
A handful of other booking sites have similar concepts, like the price guarantee feature Google Flights has piloted on a select number of itineraries (a very select number — don’t assume your trip is eligible without checking). For certain book-through-Google trips, if the price drops by at least $5 after you book, you may be eligible for a refund of the difference, up to $500 per calendar year.
Check award pricing, but tread carefully
If you have miles saved up, it may make sense to book your flights with miles instead of shelling out cash. Just be especially careful around the holidays to vet whether you’re getting a good redemption for your hard-earned miles.
While the cash prices aren’t appealing for Christmas and New Year’s, the award prices might be even worse. This can be especially true as more airlines shift to revenue-based award pricing models that remove a layer of predictability from what you pay in points and miles.
Resources like TPG’s points and miles valuations and TPG’s awards versus cash calculator can be great to use to determine whether you’re better off using cash or your miles.
Yes, even a poor value redemption can save you a chunk of money, but remember that you won’t have those miles when spring and summer come around and you’re looking to book a vacation.
It’s still worth checking, though, to keep cash in your pocket. With a bit of luck, you may even find good premium cabin awards available (since there’s virtually no business travel during holiday weeks). Miles can also be your fallback plan while you look for something better since many U.S. programs now allow free changes or cancellations on awards (at least, up until a certain point).
For Capital One products listed on this page, some of the above benefits are provided by Visa® or Mastercard® and may vary by product. See the respective Guide to Benefits for details, as terms and exclusions apply
If you’re thinking of flying for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s, act fast.
You may have waited until the crisp fall air arrived to start planning your holiday travel, but some decent options are still available. Know, though, that if you want to avoid the worst fares, booking all your holiday travel in the coming days will be your best bet to save money.
While you’re at it, don’t forget to also book flexible car rentals and hotel reservations, if needed.