There's no sure way to tell what will happen with holiday airfare prices this year. But that doesn't mean you have to go into the process entirely blind.
After a summer that saw the average price to fly drop—even as airlines were cutting capacity to close the gap in demand—airlines are already scrambling to entice travelers to fly during the traditionally slower fall and winter travel period. SmarterTravel's own Ed Perkins recently predicted a continuation of the airfare sale trend at least through winter, and our airfare deal expert Patricia Magaña told me that most U.S. airlines have sales right now.
But the traditional spike in travel around Thanksgiving and Christmas means that good winter prices don't necessarily translate into holiday airfare bargains. However, since late last fall, the number of people traveling on major holidays has, by and large, been down compared to previous years. Looking to the past may not predict the future in this case, but it does suggest that this holiday season is unlikely to break any records.
A recent holiday forecast from Bing Travel supports this view. According to the travel search engine, fares are currently down 22 percent over last year for Thanksgiving travel and 17 percent for Christmas travel. Bing also points out a three-year trend of Christmas travel prices dropping during the first two weeks of October; something to keep in mind as you begin to plan in the coming weeks.
So how do you make sure you're not overpaying for your holiday airfare this year? Here are some strategies to keep in mind:
- Compare, Compare, Compare: Don't just check prices when you're ready to book. Start early so you can get a sense of whether prices are on the way up or down. When you compare, remember to check the airlines' own sites in addition to online travel sellers.
- Factor Those Fees: Now more than ever, it's important to add baggage fees and other ancillary charges into the price of your ticket. On many airlines, that $40 you save on airfare could mean $50 or more in bag fees if you plan on checking multiple suitcases. Check the SmarterTravel ultimate guide to airline fees when you're comparing fares.
- Act Fast If You See a Sale You Like: Airlines are running sales with little advance notice and short purchase windows, so you may have to make some quick decisions to take advantage of sale rates that can mean the difference of hundreds of dollars.
- Check for Lower Fares After You Book: On many airlines, if the price of your flight drops after you book, you can get the difference refunded. However, most airlines charge hefty change fees you must pay before collecting the difference, thereby cancelling out the savings in most cases. But if you're flying on Alaska, JetBlue, or Southwest, you can get the difference credited without paying an additional fee.
- Look for Alternate Days: If you have a little wiggle room with your travel dates, check out the flexible fare searches offered by many airlines and online travel sellers. FareCompare even has a handy calendar highlighting the cheapest travel days around the holidays. These are easy ways to find out how much you could save by flying a day earlier or later.
- Book Outside of Peak Periods: If your time is very flexible and getting the cheapest fare is vital, consider flying outside of holiday travel periods. For Thanksgiving, that generally means flying before Thanksgiving week and returning on or after the Monday following the holiday. For Christmas, the holiday travel period starts between December 16 and 18 (depending on airline) and ends between January 4 and 6, though some airlines lower fares for travel on Christmas and the following few days.
- Expand Your Search: Be sure to compare prices from all the airports near your home to all the airports in the region you'll be visiting. As part of this process, you'll also need to factor in any additional transportation costs associated with getting to more distant airports.
- Sign Up for Newsletters: If you tend to fly on certain airlines, it may be worth it to sign up for email newsletter alerts so that you'll be the first to know when new sales are launched. And of course, SmarterTravel's daily Deal Alert newsletter reviews the latest sales from U.S.-based airlines.
Home for the Holidays or Getting Away From it All?
There are more strategies for saving depending on where you're headed this holiday season. If you're going home for the holidays, chances are it isn't for the first time. Are there educated guesses you can make based on trends you've seen in years past for your specific route? Were you able to score a great last-minute deal, or did waiting until the last minute leave you out of luck?
If you're looking for an alternative to going home for the holidays, consider this: The holidays are a great time to find cheap deals, particularly to Europe. For instance, go-today.com has a seven-day Thanksgiving in Prague package including airfare and accommodations starting from $599 per person (based on airfare from New York; airfare from other cities is also available at a higher rate), including all taxes and fees.
And finally, remember that, when it comes to holiday airfare, getting a good deal might be good enough. Save the extreme bargain hunting for a less popular travel period, and pat yourself on the back for finding a pretty good fare wherever you're going this holiday season.
Do you have other tips for finding good airfare prices this holiday season? Share them with other readers below!