It has become woven into the fabric of American culture that the holiday season is the time to buy gifts for loved ones or treat yourself to something new. Although the panic to shop will rumble on until the end of the year, Americans hit their wallets hardest after Thanksgiving: Black Friday, Cyber Monday and, increasingly, the emerging Travel Deal Tuesday.
Once mostly focused on electronics bargains, sales on Black Friday “weekend” (for these purposes, the span of up to five days) now thoroughly cover the rest of the things you spend money on, including travel. Deals abound on hotel rooms, cruises, rental cars, luggage, hot-air balloon rides, plane tickets — you name it.
Across the Internet, promises of savings are everywhere. Priceline says it will feature more than $200 million in discounts, launching a new flash sale every two hours. Amtrak branded its promotion as a “Track Friday” sale. Those in the market for airfare can expect to see sales posted by domestic and international airlines all weekend long.
“It is just as important for airlines on this long weekend to be active and engaged as it is for retailers and online retailers,” says Hayley Berg, economist at Hopper.
But are these sales any good, or are they just marketing schemes to get customers to think they’re benefiting by shopping on these specific dates?
We spoke with travel experts about what to know before you pull out your wallet.
Start your shopping in the morning.
Should you decide to get into the Black Friday game, Berg recommends getting a jump on your weekend shopping early in the spirit of those people lining up at Best Buy at the crack of dawn (maybe not that early, but you get the idea).
“We typically recommend if you can look in the morning, start then,” Berg says. “Sometimes airlines have a limited number of fares and better prices available, then the promotion closes, which is pretty common.”
However, if you snooze, you might not lose. New fares become available throughout the day from different carriers, so it’s best to keep tabs continuously. That advice goes for day of the week, too. An airline may release a sale on Black Friday or Cyber Monday or run a promotion for longer than the weekend.
Set your price alerts in advance.
To know for sure that you’re getting a great deal, the best move is to know what the baseline fares are, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Because ticket prices can change up to 130 times before departure, travelers get wildly different cost estimates depending on the minute they’re doing their travel research.
A way of navigating this tricky landscape is to set up an online price alert for flights to better prepare for the Black Friday shopping weekend.
“I would always start with a price alert, and it never hurts to look during the holidays,” says Juliano Lopez, head of Research and Insights at Skyscanner.
With an alert, you’ll be able to see price fluctuation yourself and know whether the advertised deals are worth your money.
The airfare deals on Black Friday weekend are pretty specific. You’re not going to see blanket “50 percent off all international routes” or “40 percent off flights booked in June,” for example. What you will see are discounts on select routes during select times — advantageous if you keep your travel wish list flexible.
You can also look to online tools for an imperfect reference on what flights have looked like, even if you haven’t been watching them personally.
“One nice thing that places like Google Flights and Kayak decided to do is give a sort of price range estimate and say, Oh, this $500 flight you’re seeing to London is on low side of normal,” says Scott’s Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes. “That’s a good place to start out if you don’t have any sort of context.”
Remember, it’s not your only time of year to score a deal.
While everyone agrees that sales will take place, not everyone agrees they’ll live up to the hype.
Keyes argues that airlines don’t have to push particularly great deals over the Black Friday weekend (or any time of the year) because it’s not worth their time or effort. To execute a deal advertising campaign, an airline has to spend money on the planning and execution and expect a certain amount of volume from the customer side.
“The general theme for flights is that advertised flight sales just aren’t very good,” he says. “If there are $250 flights to Europe, they don’t have to put any marketing dollars behind that deal. That, there, is going to sell itself.”
Keyes says the best finds are unadvertised deals that happen sporadically year-round. Unadvertised deals make up about 90 percent of the steals Scott’s Cheap Flights finds for its members. Random finds, like a round trip from Pennsylvania to Japan for $485, are where the real magic happens, and those have nothing to do with marketing.
International routes may be a traveler’s best bet.
International airlines can prove to be exceptions to Keyes’s general philosophy on the weekend of sales, which is great news for U.S.-based travelers.
Maybe it’s the time spent with family on Thanksgiving that gives shoppers the urge to get as far away as possible, but more than 60 percent of flight searches on Skyscanner during last year’s Black Friday weekend were for international travel. It’s also where Skyscanner saw the deepest airfare discounts (last year’s data showed up to 29 percent cheaper international flights, vs. 10 percent on domestic).
“A few airlines actually have good deals that are kind of the exceptions to the rule. One of them traditionally has been Air New Zealand, which frequently runs good sales,” Keyes says. “Oftentimes on Cyber Monday, they’ll announce [the sale] in the morning, and then it’ll expire at midnight.”
Air New Zealand and other international airlines may use Black Friday weekend as an opportunity to break into new markets.
“Travel Deal Tuesday is a really great opportunity for some of the international airlines that have less brand recognition in the U.S. to come in and make a big splash,” Berg explains.