If You Want Cheap Holiday Flights, This Is the Best Time to Book Tickets

Holiday travelers need to act fast to lock in the best ticket prices.
Passengers wait for take off on their holiday flight

If you’re planning to travel during the holidays and thought you had weeks to find a deal on plane tickets, a new survey from CheapAir.com indicates that you might have less time than you think. After examining 917 million airfares over the past year, they report the ideal buying time for domestic U.S. flights is 70 days in advance of the date of travel—that’s more than two weeks farther out than the previous year’s target window of 54 days.

These ideal buying windows apply year-round, but as most weary travelers know, holiday travel is its own beast—not just because of the traffic, the overbooked flights and the rise in baggage fees—but because airlines can be notoriously Scrooge-like when setting their holiday prices.

So if you’re looking to make it home for Thanksgiving dinner or to deck the halls with Mom and Dad this holiday season, then you’ll want to start planning your trip now for the best travel deals and to avoid that exorbitant surge in holiday travel prices.

Best time to book flights for Thanksgiving

If you’re looking to book tickets for Thanksgiving week, you should try to make your purchase before the end of September. The average cost for Thanksgiving tickets steadily declined between March and mid-September, reaching a low of $393, but it has since begun inching upward. CheapAir projects the average price of Thanksgiving flights will increase to $430 in October and $500 in November.

Best days to travel for Thanksgiving

The Monday before Thanksgiving (November 19th) will probably be the cheapest day of Thanksgiving week to fly to your destination, with travelers saving $40 per ticket on average. After that, the next best day to fly would be Thanksgiving day itself. Travelers who nab an early flight that day could save some money while still arriving in time to pass the gravy and partake in first helpings of turkey. If you’re thinking about traveling the week before Thanksgiving, you should avoid Friday, November 16th. Not only will it be the most expensive day to travel, but also, our own study also indicates that Friday will see more flight delays than any other date.

Best November travel dates
Source: CheapAir.com

On the return end, consider extending your trip a few days longer if you’re looking for cheap flights home. Travelers who wait until Tuesday, November 27th, to fly home could save up to $209 per ticket. Those who can't afford the vacation days are better off flying home the day after Thanksgiving, but at least you’ll have your Tryptophan-induced food coma to keep you company on what’s likely going to be an emptier flight. Those who stay into the weekend will pay more to fly, with Sunday, November 25th, being the most expensive day to travel home.

Best time to book flights for Christmas or New Year's

Travel for Christmas and New Year's is a bit more expensive than Thanksgiving, but the same principles apply. Between now and the end of the year, booking earlier is better. Average prices are currently sitting at a little more than $400, but they could reach $530 by mid-December. At the latest, you should plan to purchase you tickets by mid-October, before prices really begin to shoot upward and you find yourself spending all your money on airfare rather than Christmas gifts.

Best day to travel for Christmas or New Year's

Departing a full week before Christmas will help you bag the best deal, with Tuesday, December 18th, being the cheapest day to travel. After the 19th, the next affordable day would be Christmas Eve, with even better deals (and probably less traffic) on Christmas Day itself.

Best December travel dates
Source: CheapAir.com

Finding a good deal for your return trip can be tricky. Traveling on a Friday is usually more expensive, but since the Friday after Christmas is couched right between pricey post-Christmas and pre-New Year's dates, traveling home on Friday, December 28th, may actually be cheaper than the two days before or after. If you can manage to extend your vacation a few more days and would actually enjoy the company of your family, traveling on New Year's Eve is your next affordable date.

Those traveling just for New Year's would do best to depart on the same dates when Christmasgoers are returning home: Friday, December 28th, or Monday, December 31st. January 2nd is the most expensive day to travel home, but those who extend their trip until Thursday, January 3rd will save around $60 per ticket.

Set up travel price alerts now

Between now and the holidays, average tickets prices will only trend upward. But the actual price of a ticket will fluctuate constantly. It's a good idea to set up price alerts on specific trips so you can jump on a bargain when it comes.

Many tools enable you to set up alerts, such as Google Flights, Expedia.com SkyScanner.com. Plug in your airport, your final destination and the potential dates you want to travel, and each of these sites will email you when the price dips.

Knowing when to buy will take a little educated guessing. You don't want to jump on the first price dip, only to be frustrated to find lower prices a day later. But you also don't want to wait until it's too late. Watch the alerts for a couple days to get a feel for the average price of tickets to your destination, then buy when you feel like an offer is closer to the cheap end. You may see a slightly lower price later, but as long as you’re been able to avoid paying 25% more two weeks later, you’ve saved yourself some money and the headache of spending hours plugging in different travel permutations on a booking platform at the last minute.

Book using a travel rewards credit card

To get even more mileage out of your purchase, book your ticket purchase using one of the best airline credit cards to earn extra points on your holiday travel.

If you don't have a card, signing up for one right before an expensive purchase, such as holiday airfare, can help you qualify for an attractive introductory bonus offer. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card comes with no annual fee for the first year and a 50,000 point bonus (worth $625) if you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months of opening your account.

Daniel Caughill

Daniel is a former Staff Writer at ValuePenguin, covering insurance, retirement and other personal finance topics. He previously wrote about compliance and best practices for K-12 school districts at Frontline Education.

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