October 14, 2018
While travel advice abounds for the best times to buy the most affordable holiday plane tickets, it’s hard to escape reality: Flying during some of the year’s busiest travel periods whether for business or pleasure generally isn’t going to be cheap.
In this era of packed airplanes, smaller seats and fees for extra leg room, what airline is going to offer inexpensive fares around Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s? Common business sense dictates that high prices will follow high demand.
What are procrastinating travelers to do besides drive or take the train to get to their destinations? We checked with airfare experts on time-honored ways to dull the price pain.
When we’re counting our blessings, Thanksgiving ticket prices aren’t usually among them.
“Prices for Thanksgiving travel start high because the airlines know travelers have little flexibility in terms of destinations and dates,” writes Patrick Surry of Hopper Research.
He warns that “the busiest and most expensive day to depart is Wednesday.” (That’s November 21 in 2018). Same holds true for a Sunday return (November 25). He says you might save money flying on Thanksgiving morning and returning midweek.
Cheapair.com offers similar advice, also encouraging that you try to either fly out early (the Monday before Thanksgiving Day) or return late (on Tuesday, November 27, or later).
Google’s travel team, which released new features in 2018 to help you navigate prices, also suggests booking before October, when you’re likely to see a big jump in prices.
Finally, the advice from the website Kayak is similar: You get the best airfare deals when booking Thanksgiving and holiday travel in September. Kayak says that after September 17, flight prices steadily increase, reaching the highest point in mid-October. For those traveling overseas, book travel before October 20 to score the best price, Kayak suggests.
Cheapair.com can also provide you with trending airfares to keep you abreast of the latest changes.
Christmas and New Year’s
Generally, Christmas and New Year’s function much like Thanksgiving: High demand, high prices. Again, off-peak flying is your friend.
Kayak says people can also benefit by booking Christmas travel in September. The website says you should definitely book travel around Christmastime before November 25, which is when prices start to steadily climb.
However, Skyscanner has good news for people who procrastinate. You might pick up a bargain if you wait until the week of December 19-25 to buy your flight. It’s a roll of the dice and you’re not likely to have a pick of seats, but it’s an option.
The airport you use can make a difference on how much you spend.
Always look into alternate airports — the New York area has five airports and Houston has two — and check Southwest.com in addition to Kayak or other search engines, Airfarewatchdog’s George Hobica says.
On some supercompetitive routes (think Chicago-New York), there will always be “a few scattered seats and flight times that will go on sale,” he says.
Don’t forget to count the fees
Remember to factor in baggage fees, extra leg room fees and food purchases before booking flights. Airline credit card holders may get a free checked bag and other perks.
Make sure you consider your ground transportation costs as well.
Finally, some other tips and considerations:
Check flight status: Julie Hall of AAA says check your flight status before leaving for the airport. “This is especially important around the winter holidays in the event of inclement weather that may impact flight itineraries,” she says.
Insurance: Cheapflights reminds passengers to keep unpredictable winter weather in mind and consider getting travel insurance.
Early birds: Delays are less likely early in the morning, Orbitz says. You may miss your sleep getting up extra early, but you may also miss the crowds and misery.
Delay a week: Orbitz also points out that fares — along with hotel rooms — often drop a lot the week after Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.
Presents: If you’re flying to see family, Orbitz suggest shipping your presents instead of bringing them on the plane. Saves hassles and fees.
Go global: International airfares can be a good deal for Americans this time of year. So if your family is understanding about pushing Christmas to the spring, maybe a holiday vacation is in order.
Do you know the best time to book flights? Google does
The latest research from Google’s Travel team confirms that the best time to have searched for and bought a flight for the most popular travel holiday in the U.S. was back in August. By waitinging until now we’re seeing an 95% increase in prices.
Super last-minute planners can expect to see another 30% increase in prices if no flight or hotel has been booked. Seven days out and you’re looking at even heftier price tags.
Another Google finding may surprise travelers who’ve judiciously avoided traveling the Wednesday before Thanksgiving because of heavy crowds and high costs. The company notes that while, sure, Wednesday may be the busiest travel day, it is not necessarily the most expensive.
For Thanksgiving travel, in particular, the determining factor in total airfare cost is the return date. So if you’re not in a rush to return to work and you don’t mind eating leftovers for a couple of more days, extend your trip. You’ll likely see the savings.
Going back the Monday after the holiday is OK, Tuesday is better and Wednesday is best. Have vacation time to burn? Stay into the following week — yes, a whole week after Thanksgiving — and you may just get the deal of your life.
Of course, for travelers staying in a hotel over Thanksgiving, it may not make much financial sense to save a couple hundred bucks on a flight only to throw twice as much toward additional nights for a room.
To help with all of the confusing travel info out there, a few months back Google debuted a new Google Flights feature to help consumers determine whether the price on a given flight is actually a deal or not. The feature clues you in to what a typical price is based on what flights cost last year when booked in August, September, October and other months in 2017.
But remember, the search tool is pulling up the cheapest flights — in basic economy across all airlines — based on your dates and destination. Add-ons, including seat selection and checked bags, may cost extra depending on the carrier.
So while the feature is helpful in providing some insight, whether it’s a real deal depends largely on your standards and expectations of travel.
You can find all of Google’s latest holiday travel insights by clicking here.
10 Best Holiday Travel Tips
In addition to all the headaches experienced above, and knowing that planes, trains and roads will be crowded — especially now that the economy has perked up — while there’s always the chance that snowstorms will gum up the works, here are 10 tips (some new, some time-tested ) for headache-free traveling during this busy season.
1. Don’t Travel on Peak Days
There’s no getting around it. Peak travel days are the worst! You’ve heard it before, but it remains true that traveling the day before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after — whether by air, rail or road — greatly increases your chance of travel woes. Consider adjusting your dates by even a day.
2. Leave Lots of Extra Time
Depart from home far earlier in the day than you would at any other time of year, whether you’re starting a road trip or heading to an airport or bus or railway station. Wouldn’t you rather not be panicked if you run into traffic congestion, crowded public transit or long security lines? Relax and read or listen to music while you wait for your plane or train; take a restful pit stop if you’re driving.
3. Rethink the Airport Experience
An airport is no longer just a transit hub to be rushed through. Many terminals are amenity-filled malls, some with terrific art exhibitions, shops, restaurants and even spas and yoga rooms. Arriving three hours before a flight is a lot more pleasant when you know you can browse, savor a glass of wine, exercise or get a massage.
4. Reserve Airport Parking
Airport parking often fills up during the holidays. But at many lots — especially private ones a short shuttle ride from the terminal — you can prebook, sparing yourself a mad scramble to stash the car before your flight takes off.
5. Avoid Airline Ticket Counters
There is no need to wait in line if you print out boarding passes at home, pull them up on your smartphone or get them at an airport kiosk. If you have an e-ticket, carry a printout of your itinerary. And if you’re checking bags, use the skycaps at curbside (remember to tip them generously).
6. Pack Light for Air Travel
Take only a carry-on bag, even if it means leaving an outfit or two at home. That sacrifice will save you time on both ends of the trip, and if your flight is canceled it simplifies scoring a seat on another flight.
7. Have a Backup Plan
You can’t predict travel snafus, but you can make like a Boy Scout and be prepared for anything. If you’re driving, know alternative routes so you can adjust if traffic is bad. If you’re flying, know the alternative flights and connecting cities to your destination in case of delays or cancellations.
8. Bring Provisions
Take snacks, games, books, magazines, portable music or DVD players and other diversions to pass the time if your flight is delayed or you’re stuck in traffic. (This is vital, of course, if you’re traveling with kids.)
9. Turn Your Phone Into a Travel Tool
Sign up with your airline to receive flight status updates on your phone, or load your smartphone with mobile travel alert apps from Amtrak or state highway authorities. Before leaving home, make sure your phone is fully charged and holds all the numbers you could possibly need, including family, friends, hotel, airline, rental car agency and credit card companies.
10. Think Twice About Holiday Gifts
If you’ll be traveling by air, ship presents in advance or shop online and have them delivered to your destination. If you do take gifts along, make them small and packable, and don’t wrap them beforehand: Even if they’re in checked luggage, security personnel may need to open them for inspection.
Sources: Google, CNN, AARP