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When you should book holiday flights

Deals may be had if you start your Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve planning a season ahead

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Radio stations are nowhere near queuing up Christmas playlists, but it’s time to start thinking about booking holiday flights. Travelers who shop months early tend to have an advantage over those who wait — less competition.

“Airfares are tied to supply and demand, and prices are always cheaper when there are more seats available,” Mark Crossey, U.S. travel expert for the booking platform Skyscanner, said in an email.

And as seats fill, prices rise.

“It’s just the same way that you want to buy your winter coats in the summer,” said Scott’s Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes. “Same with those winter holiday flights for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s.”

Does that mean you should book this minute? Not quite. We spoke to industry experts to share the best practices for booking budget-conscious holiday trips.

September is the sweet spot

Looking at Google Flights data, airfares tend to drop about three months before the holidays, Google spokesman Craig Ewer said. That means for late December travel, “the back half of September has been a good time to consider your options and set up price tracking alerts,” Ewer said in an email.

Data from Priceline leads to a similar conclusion. CEO Brett Keller says the closer you get to the holiday period (but not too close), average prices for domestic flights and hotels tend to drop. In previous years, airfares were the least expensive in September and October, so Keller recommends shoppers book holiday travel in the fall.

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Hayley Berg, lead economist at the travel booking app Hopper, says traveler demand tapers off following the peak vacation months of May, June and July. In October and November, when people turn their attention from summer vacations to winter plans, holiday travel prices will come back up with the demand.

The moral of the story: Prices should come down in the fall, but get too far into the season and “chances are almost certain that fares are going to get more expensive for those winter holidays rather than less expensive,” Keyes said.

Exceptions for the last minute

If you can be very flexible with your travel plans, it may be possible to find a last-minute deal on holiday airfare. “You have to kind of get lucky,” Keyes said.

Ewer says that technically, the absolute cheapest winter holiday fares Google Flights has seen in the past were available just after Thanksgiving. However, “they’re not dramatically lower than what you’d see in October or November,” Ewer said, “and you’ll likely want to plan further ahead since prices may vary based on the route you’re traveling.”

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Chris Hutchins, a travel expert and host of the podcast “All the Hacks,” says you may improve your chances to get a deal if you pay with points or miles. Even when the cash prices for last-minute fares are skyrocketing, Hutchins says most airlines “often actually drop to really low amounts when you pay with miles.”

Hutchins says that’s because airlines know business travelers and wealthier (or desperate) customers will pay outright for expensive fares. But if they need to fill the plane, deals with miles may emerge.

“On most of the traditional airlines — United, Delta, American — I’ve found a lot of really great deals looking within the last five to seven days,” Hutchins said.

How does this year compare with past holiday travel?

Naturally, demand for airfare around big federal holidays is higher, so you can expect to pay more for flights than you would during quieter parts of the year. While Keyes says deals have been popping up for Christmas and New Year’s travel, it could still cost you more this year.

“Then again, pretty much everything we buy is more expensive now than it was a few years ago,” Sara Rathner, travel expert at NerdWallet, told The Washington Post in an email.

Berg says overall holiday ticket prices are expected to be higher than 2019 levels. As of now, the average domestic airfare around Christmas is $462 per round-trip ticket, up 25 percent compared with this time in 2019 and 11 percent higher than in 2018. For international flights, prices are up 16 percent compared with 2019 and 7 percent higher than 2018.

“We can be all but certain that holiday travel demand in 2022 will exceed that of 2019,” Clem Bason, general manager of travel at the travel and e-commerce company Snapcommerce, said in an email. “There are many factors that all point to increased prices, hectic travel and more bodies on the move.”

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How do I find the deals?

Your best bet for finding decent holiday airfare is to let your computer do it for you.

Start tracking prices for your desired routes by setting price alerts. These will show you when prices drop and climb, and analyze whether prices are high, low or standard.

Remember that ticket prices can change up to 130 times before the flight actually takes off, so just because they increase one day doesn’t mean they won’t drop again.

For example, airlines can add flights to match demand for busy routes. “As they do this, prices will change,” Crossey said. A price alert would catch the change.

How do you actually get those $49 flights? There’s always a catch to airline sales.

Get creative with the routes you track. Crossey says the best deals are often found by using different airlines for outbound and return flights, or tinkering with departing from and returning to different airports (such as taking off from JFK and returning to LGA).

Once you see a favorable fare, particularly if it’s on an airline without change fees that you know you’ll fly again, “you can book an appealing flight now and keep shopping around for a lower price,” Rathner said.

Should you find something cheaper, you can cancel your original ticket for a flight voucher to use later. Or you could just book with points. Hutchins says in a lot of cases, if you cancel a flight booked with miles, you’ll just get them back.

But be warned, “different airlines have different rules, so before you try this, make sure your booking would be eligible for a change,” Rathner said.