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If you’re traveling for the holidays, now is the time to book flights

Experts weigh in on how to book holiday travel in 2020, the year of no rules


(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

In the old days, experts advised that late September through the end of October was the best time to book Thanksgiving and holiday flights if you were looking for the best deals. If you missed that window, you could find low outlier fares, though it was tricky.

But like many things in 2020, this rule of thumb does not apply during the pandemic.

“With regards to the best time to book — things have changed,” says Mark Crossey, the director of sales at Skyscanner. “From a price point, generally speaking, it is competitive for travelers at the moment.”

With air travel demand down considerably (by more than half the travelers compared with 2019), airlines are offering very low ticket fares to bring customers back.

“In normal times, traveling over the holidays is one of the most expensive times of year to fly, alongside of middle of summer,” says Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. But this year, Keyes says, his company has seen significantly cheaper Christmas and New Year’s flights than in the past.

Before the pandemic, travelers knew they had to get home for the holidays no matter what. There are about a million holiday movies lampooning our desperate attempts to make it back in time for Christmas.

“This year, there’s a little bit more uncertainty, a little bit more trepidation,” Keyes says.

For that reason, many travelers are holding off on making their holiday bookings. Crossey says 46 percent of trips booked recently on Skyscanner are departing within 14 days.

“The trend is definitely moving towards more last minute, as opposed to six months in advance,” he says. “People are probably aware that prices are competitive, and they want to really check ‘Okay, how is the country managing pandemic? Are things still open?’ If so, they’ll look and then they’ll go.”

Because fewer people are booking holiday travel well in advance, Keyes says, airlines are significantly slashing holiday airfare prices. Unlike before the pandemic, major airlines have removed change fees for domestic flights.

“You have the dynamic of airlines offering free changes, giving people much more flexibility,” Keyes says.

Crossey says travelers may have a stronger incentive to book now because they know they won’t lose money if they need to change their flight later, whether because of pandemic restrictions or general unease with traveling.

While deals are great now, Crossey says that doesn’t mean there won’t be more later. There could be sporadic deals or sales on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. But for now, “all we can see is prices are good, tickets are very flexible.” He also notes travelers can shop around for airlines with the best coronavirus precautions in place.

While 2020 is wholly different for travel, Keyes’s life motto still applies for pandemic holiday travel: Book when there’s a cheap flight.

“I don’t say that to be flip, but it’s more understanding that there’s not a set-in-stone date when fares are going to be cheapest,” Keyes says.

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