After experiencing a major rebound in the number of travelers flying this past summer, the airlines are gearing up for what looks to be one of the busiest holiday travel seasons in years. Travelers who need to fly over Thanksgiving or the December holidays will find stiff competition for affordable seats—or any seats at all.
If you're one of the millions of Americans planning to fly this holiday season, you'll need to plan ahead and be flexible with your itinerary in order to get a good deal on your flight. To help you find the cheap seats, we consulted with spokespersons from Expedia, Hotwire, Orbitz, and Priceline.com, who offered their tips on how to fly for less over the holidays. Their top tips include:
- Book early: According to our sources, booking your flight as soon as you confirm your travel plans is the key strategy for saving this year. "Buy tickets at least 30 days in advance for maximum [seat] selection and savings," recommends Priceline.com spokesman Brian Ek. While waiting until the last minute can pay off at other times of the year, those who wait to buy seats for the holidays may find little or no availability. "After such a busy summer travel season, all indications show that the holidays this year should be the busiest we've seen since 2000," said Hotwire spokeswoman Amy Bohutinsky. "This means seats will fill up fast, bringing airfare prices higher as the [holidays] get closer. We're not expecting a lot of empty seats this year, and thus don't expect a lot of last-minute deals."
- Avoid peak travel dates: Certain dates around the holidays are more popular for travel than others, and with so many travelers competing for a set number of seats, getting an affordable flight on these busy days can be difficult. "Everyone traveling over the holidays is on a mission to get the most time away using the fewest vacation days, but if you're willing to come back a day later or a day earlier than everyone else, you'll get a better price," said Expedia spokeswoman Kari Swartz. Although our contacts had no consensus on exactly what travel dates to avoid, most agreed that you should try not to fly on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (November 24), the Sunday after Thanksgiving (November 28), the day before Christmas Eve (December 23), the day after Christmas (December 26), and the day after New Year's (January 2).
- Fly on the holiday: The cheapest times to fly are, unfortunately, the holidays themselves: Thanksgiving day (November 25), Christmas Eve (December 24), Christmas Day (December 25), New Year's Eve (December 31), and New Year's Day (January 1). To strike a balance between saving money and enjoying your time off, you may need to fly several days before or after the holiday. Also, be aware that if you fly on the holiday and your flight is delayed or cancelled, you may miss the festivities.
- Use flexible online search tools: Many of the online travel booking sites have flexible search options that allow you to shop for the cheapest airfare over a range of days. Orbitz' Flex Search is one of the best tools out there, allowing you to see what you can save by leaving a day earlier or later than your desired travel dates, to find the cheapest days to fly within a 30-day period, or to find the cheapest weekend flight.
- Use an 'opaque' booking site: If you can't move your travel dates but are flexible about what time during the day you fly and which airline you use, try an opaque booking site like Hotwire or Priceline.com. You won't know the exact details of your flight until after you book, but you may get a cheaper, unadvertised fare. Although this can be a good option in many situations, it's not the best choice for traveling on a holiday, since your flight may be scheduled too late to make your holiday celebration.
- Fly out of an alternate airport: By avoiding major airports and flying out of smaller, less popular ones, you may find more availability on major carriers and have access to the many budget airlines that tend to use alternate airports as bases of operation. For example, if you live near San Francisco, consider the nearby Oakland International where you can get flights on JetBlue, Southwest, and Spirit, rather than flying from SFO. Plus, as Orbitz spokeswoman Terri Shank points out, lines for check-in and security at smaller airports will be shorter.
- Book a vacation package: If you're not staying with relatives and need a hotel room, you may be able to save on airfare by booking air and hotel as part of a package. "If you need two or more elements for your holiday trip, such as air and hotel, consider booking a vacation package," said Kari Swartz of Expedia. "By bundling elements, the [travel providers] do not have to unveil the price of each service, and so can give deep discounts." According to Swartz, research by Expedia showed that purchasing air-and-hotel packages to its top 50 best-selling destinations rather than purchasing air and hotel separately saves the buyer, on average, $193 per booking.