It’s only September. The school year is young, and it’s still warm in many parts of the country that will eventually see snow and sub-freezing temperatures. Yet, experts are warning that you shouldn’t wait to book your holiday flights.
While much has been made about the disruptions to air travel over the summer, it’s also been a volatile year for airfare prices.
Costs skyrocketed during the first half of 2022 as airlines, and therefore consumers, dealt with a combination of inflation, rising fuel prices and an uneven supply and demand equation as interest in travel roared back to life after two-plus years of disruptions.
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Late in the summer, as passengers began to satisfy their pent-up cravings to travel, prices came down a bit — and there have even been some great fall deals to take advantage of as often happens this time of year.
The same cannot be said about the holidays, however, where airfare has trended far above last year’s prices and doesn’t seem likely to get any cheaper.
“My advice to travelers now is that if you find flights with a convenient schedule and fares that fit your budget, book them,” airline industry analyst Henry Harteveldt told TPG. “Don’t try to game the system.”
Is it already too late to book Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s flights without getting gouged? Not necessarily, especially if you’re not locked into specific travel dates or destinations.
However, if you’ve historically approached booking your holiday air travel methodically over the course of autumn, you’ll want to adapt that approach for this year — and soon.
Here’s what we know about what holiday airfare prices are doing in 2022.
How soon should you book holiday 2022 flights?
When to book Thanksgiving flights
Let’s start with a bit of good news. In recent weeks, booking site Hopper, which tracks airfare, has seen the average price of Thanksgiving round-trip domestic flights come down to $292, which is fairly comparable to 2019 levels. Just a few weeks ago, that number was closer to $360.
Don’t expect the downward trend to continue, though, says Hayley Berg, the company’s lead economist.
“Airfare will remain high, but volatile (moving up and down day to day) through early October, before rising in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Berg said as part of Hopper’s 2022 Holiday Travel Outlook published earlier this month.
That means you’re likely to see prices fluctuate in the coming weeks, but Hopper expects ultimately, the prices will rise dramatically. Because of that, Berg recommends locking in your flights for Thanksgiving no later than the week of Oct. 10.
When to book Christmas and New Year’s flights
In past years, there’s been a mantra that suggests travelers book Thanksgiving flights by Halloween and Christmas flights by Thanksgiving.
There’s been a shift in 2022, though. This year, airfare experts recommend you book all of your holiday travel as soon as possible. For that reason, Hopper’s recommended deadline for booking Christmas week flights is the same as that for Thanksgiving: the week of Oct. 10.
Part of the reason to book Christmas flights so early is that Christmas prices are trending far above Thanksgiving levels. Hopper currently projects the average domestic round trip around Christmas at $451 — up from 2019 by nearly 25%.
As with Thanksgiving, there’s a good chance prices may fluctuate in the immediate short term. Come October though, prices are expected to just keep rising. “Americans need to start planning their holiday trips now!” Berg said as part of Hopper’s holiday forecast.
Can you book holiday flights now and change them later?
When you consider the advice to book all of your holiday trips at the same time this year, it might seem a bit daunting from a budgetary standpoint. Not to mention, it may feel awfully early to book Christmas and New Year’s flights.
It begs the question: If you book now and find a cheaper flight later, can you change your trip? By and large, the answer is yes, but with some important caveats to know.
On the four largest U.S. carriers — American, Delta, Southwest and United — you can now change your ticket without paying a change fee. For the most part, if you find a cheaper flight down the road, you can rebook and get airline flight credits for the price difference between the two flights, which you could use on a future trip. You can alternatively opt for a full refund when canceling certain higher-level tickets or when using miles in some programs.
As for this flexibility on American, Delta and United, it generally applies to domestic flights and, in fact, all flights originating in North America, depending on the airline — check your carrier’s individual policy if you’re looking to change an international flight.
Keep in mind, though, American, Delta and United exclude basic economy tickets from this flexibility — so if you think you might want to make a change later on, you’re better off with a regular economy ticket and not a highly restrictive one.
Advice for booking holiday flights
If you’re just now realizing that it’s time to get serious about booking, here are some tricks and tactics to keep in mind as you look to book holiday flights that could save you a lot of money or headaches down the line.
Be flexible in your travel days
While many travelers’ work, school and life schedules don’t allow for a whole lot of flexibility around the holidays, the fewer requirements you can put on your travel needs, the better chance you’ll have at finding a good deal.
For instance, if I need to fly from Washington, D.C.’s Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) to visit Chicago for Thanksgiving and my schedule is pretty rigid because I have to leave after 5:00 p.m. on the Wednesday night before the holiday and I don’t want to return until the Sunday after Thanksgiving but must be back by that night for work the next day, I’ve now put a lot of “filters” on my travel and I’m not exactly opening up myself to the best deals.
The cheapest itinerary I found that fits all of those requirements goes for $428 on United Airlines.
Let’s add a little flexibility to my search. Can I work remotely on the days leading into and/or out of the holiday? Maybe expand my search to include other D.C. airports and a wider range of times? That would certainly help.
Here’s a $272 round-trip departing from Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) on the Tuesday before the holiday and returning the Monday after — a savings of about 35%.
Obviously, if you need several more nights of hotel in that scenario, then that savings will be gobbled up in a hurry. However, if you are happy to stay with family for a few more days, it could be a way to keep some cash tucked away and have a longer getaway.
Opening up your search goes a long way to increasing the odds you find better flight prices.
Fly on the holiday if you can
While we hate to miss precious time with family, flying on the holiday itself is an option that can often save you some money.
Let’s say you’re looking to travel from Atlanta to Los Angeles for Christmas. A round trip departing on Christmas Eve and returning on Dec. 29 goes for $778.
If you depart Christmas morning — arriving in L.A. by mid-morning — the prices drop to $598, a savings of $180, or 23% per ticket.
I’ve also personally found that holiday morning flights can be relatively pleasant, with thinner crowds in the airports compared to the often-chaotic days surrounding the major holidays. It’s not always ideal for your family’s holiday celebration plans to travel on the holiday itself, but it can be a great way to save money.
Consider alternative destinations
Another way to skirt high holiday airfare prices is to go where the prices are lower. If you have to visit a particular city for the holidays and the prices are high, you don’t have a lot of wiggle room.
Consider this: Is there any chance of meeting family in an alternative city instead of traveling to someone’s house? Could you pick an alternative vacation destination around Christmas and New Year’s? Thinking outside the box can allow you to select airfare based on the best prices, rather than being at the mercy of whatever the prices are to a particular city.
You can use Google Flights to show you airfare prices to places around the country — or the globe — on the dates you want to travel.
Hold a flight if you’re able to
Another option if you’ve found airfare you like but aren’t 100% sure of your plans yet, is to put a hold on it.
This is admittedly getting a little bit harder to do, given some airlines’ policy changes, including American Airlines recently announcing it’s exploring ending its courtesy holds for cash tickets.
Some airlines will let you put a hold or fare lock on airfare if you find a price and itinerary that will work for your travel needs, but you aren’t ready to book just yet. It’s one of my favorite ways to allow myself additional time to make up my mind.
On United, you can pay a small fee to lock in airfare — a few dollars will generally get you a few days — after which you can either purchase the trip or have it canceled.
Keep in mind, if the airline doesn’t allow you to hold a flight, federal regulations require them to allow you 24 hours to cancel and get a full refund, so it’s not a problem if you book your flight and then quickly change your mind.
Use Capital One Travel’s price protection feature
Another tool you can use if you are shopping for holiday airfare, and have travel credit cards like the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card, is the Capital One price protection feature.
With this, you can leverage Capital One’s relationship with Hopper to use the site’s airfare algorithms to suggest whether you book now or wait for prices to drop. This can make you eligible for you a credit in the event the price unexpectedly drops.
Don’t forget to check award pricing, but tread carefully
Certainly, if you have miles saved up, it’s always great to be able to book flights without having to shell out cash.
Just be especially careful around the holidays to vet whether you’re getting a good redemption for your hard-earned miles. Sometimes at Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, while the cash prices aren’t appealing, the award prices might be even worse. This can be especially true as more airlines shift to revenue-based award pricing models that remove a layer of predictability from what you pay in points and miles.
Resources like TPG’s points and miles valuations and awards vs. cash calculator can be a great way to determine whether you’re better off using cash or your miles.
Yes, even a poor value redemption can save you a chunk of money. However, keep in mind that you won’t have those miles when spring and summer come around and you’re looking to book a vacation.
It’s still worth checking, though, not only to keep cash in your pocket but also because sometimes there are good premium cabin awards available since there’s virtually no business travel during holiday weeks. Additionally, miles can be your fallback plan while you look for something better since many U.S. programs now allow free changes or cancellations on awards, at least up until a certain point.
If you’re thinking of flying for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s, act fast.
You may have waited until the weather got a bit cooler to start planning your holiday travel. However, if you want to avoid the worst fares, booking flights for all major year-end holidays by early to mid-October is your best bet this year. And don’t forget to book those flexible car rentals and hotel reservations if needed while you’re at it.
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