You may have already missed some of the best deals — but it’s not too late to get a good price for holiday travel.
The bad news: If you haven’t already booked your Thanksgiving airfare (not to mention your Christmas and New Year’s Eve flights), you missed some of the best deals.
The good news: You can still save more than the laggards who will continue to procrastinate.
Holiday airfares are always more eye-popping than those at other times of the year, but the general rule is that the earlier you book, the lower the price. Experts say Thanksgiving fares are usually least costly in September or the first half of October. Orbitz, the booking site, announced in September that the best deals on airfares this year for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve were to be had between Oct. 5 and Oct. 12.
And FareCompare, the flight search engine, found that based on its data for 2014, travelers who bought Thanksgiving tickets in September paid 20 to 50 percent less than those who didn’t book until November. For instance, a round-trip ticket from Los Angeles International Airport to Orlando Executive Airport was $900 in September 2014. Come October, that ticket cost $130 more for a total of $1,030, according to FareCompare. By November it was $270 more than the October fare, resulting in a $1,300 ticket.
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That said, all hope is not lost. Let’s begin with Thanksgiving.
According to research from Patrick Surry, the chief data scientist at Hopper, a website and app that advises travelers when to book airfare, as long as you book your Thanksgiving flights more than 10 days in advance, you won’t pay too much more than the early birds. Domestic round-trip flights rise less than 5 percent up to 10 days before departure, Hopper said. It’s only within 10 days of Thanksgiving that prices jump (Christmas is a different story; we’ll get to that in a minute).
So what should you do to get a reasonably priced ticket?
As always, flying on certain days and avoiding others will help you save. The consensus among researchers at several online travel agencies and travel search engines is that, as with years past, flying on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 26) will yield some of the lowest fares.
If you can’t fly then, FareCompare says the next best option is to leave Monday, Nov. 23, or Tuesday, Nov. 24. The site predicts the most expensive day to depart will be Wednesday, Nov. 25, while Sunday, Nov. 29, will be the most expensive day to return. So extend your holiday, if possible, and return on Monday, Nov. 30, or Tuesday, Dec. 1, instead. Saturday, Nov. 28, is also a better option than Sunday, according to the site.
This isn’t a science, and experts don’t always end up recommending the same travel dates. Travelzoo, for example, says the best travel dates for cheap Thanksgiving flights (in addition to Thanksgiving Day) are Tuesday, Nov. 17; Wednesday, Nov. 18; Thursday, Nov. 19; Monday, Nov. 23; Friday, Nov. 27; Wednesday, Dec. 2; and Thursday, Dec. 3.
Looking ahead to Christmas and New Year’s Eve, some of the most appealing airfare deals have come and gone, according to Orbitz, but the next best options will show up early next month. The site recommends booking Christmas airfare on Nov. 6 and 7 or you’ll end up paying more, especially if you try to buy the week before Christmas to Christmas Eve.
Indeed, whereas Hopper’s research shows Thanksgiving prices don’t really spike until the last minute, it also shows that prices rise more steadily as Christmas nears. The average domestic round-trip airfare for the holidays, as of last week, is $383, down about $10 (3 percent) from last year at this time, according to Hopper. For each day closer to Christmas, the average round-trip holiday airfare is bumped up about $1.60. So in general, the best time to book is about 80 days before departure, based on the site’s research.
We’re now beyond that ideal of 80 days in advance, but there are still things you can do. Surry’s research at Hopper suggests that travelers can save up to 30 percent by finding flights that depart on Dec. 21 (the Monday before Christmas) or on Christmas Eve, and return on Christmas Day or on or after Tuesday, Jan. 5. If you plan on going away for New Year’s, traveling on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, you can save more than 25 percent. The most expensive days to travel around this time are the weekends after Christmas (Dec. 26 and 27) and New Year’s (Jan. 2 and 3).
Of course these are suggested days, based on predictions. And, again, different sites have their own recommendations. Travelzoo experts, for instance, say that you should try to fly on the following dates: Wednesday, Dec. 16; Friday, Dec. 25; Wednesday, Jan. 6; Thursday, Jan. 7; and Saturday, Jan. 9.
To simplify matters, go online and create your own guide to your preferred holiday travel dates. In September I wrote about sites in the business of what’s known as “farecasting,” or predicting the best date to buy a ticket. These tools allow you to plug in your desired travel dates and see which combination of departure and return days across multiple airlines results in the cheapest fare. Hopper, for instance, has fare calendars and predicts whether a ticket price is likely to drop or increase.
You can also wait to buy and sign up for fare alerts if you want to roll the dice during the holidays and book tickets at the last minute. Google Flights allows you to see if you can save money by, say, leaving days earlier, or by flying into or out of a different airport. Travelzoo has an airfare search engine, Fly.com, which shows prices across multiple websites and airlines. There’s a fare calendar as well.
And of course the same tactics that apply to getting lower airfare rates all year long can also help during the holidays. Gabe Saglie, a senior editor with Travelzoo, said to be sure to compare fares into and out of multiple airports. “For example,” he said, “this means L.A.-bound fliers should look beyond LAX to airports like Long Beach, John Wayne/Orange County and Burbank, which tend to feature a cozier overall flying experience and, because they’re home to low-cost carriers, competitive fares.”
Just don’t sacrifice everything for a deal. While making a few stops can lower the cost of a ticket, it can also increase the chance you’ll miss your flight, especially if you have little time between connections.
As Saglie pointed out: “Think of the extra price you might pay for a nonstop flight as an insurance policy.”