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Best/Worst Days for Holiday Travel

“What are the best days to travel during the year-end holiday season?” That question is a perennial one, and, as usual with airfares, there is no simple answer—maybe no answer, period. Depending on how you ask, you often find contradictory opinions. We looked at the three-week period from mid-December to early January.

Priceline Data publishes an annual chart of the variations in cost of holiday travel over the full period, based on costs of travel booked through its site. This year, Christmas and New Year’s both fall on Sundays, so most of you will have the following Mondays as holidays. Priceline’s current posting gives these results:

  • Best dates to travel: Dec 12, 13, 14, 17, 20, 24, 27, 28, 31.
  • Fair dates to travel: Dec 15, 16, 18, 19, 21, 25, 30, Jan 1, 2.
  • Worst dates to Travel: Dec 22, 23, 26, 29.

For the most part, these conform to conventional wisdom. Fares are highest the Thursday and Friday before and the Monday after the Christmas weekend, and the Thursday before the New Year’s weekend. Pre-weekend Thursdays tend to be worse than Fridays: Clearly, most of you want to get a one-day jump on weekend activities.

Priceline also covers the Thanksgiving weekend, where the results are about what you expect:

  • Best dates to travel: November 19, 24, 22, 29, 30, December 1, 3.
  • Fair date to travel: November 24 (Thanksgiving Day).
  • Worst dates to travel: November 18, 20, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28.

The only surprise is November 25; historically, the Friday after Thanksgiving was one of the weakest travel days of the year.

Best Route Check

Priceline’s data is based on average fares across a large number of air routes. And, given the adage that “A statistician is someone who drowns while trying to wade a river that averages three feet deep,” averages do not necessarily reflect conditions on any individual trip. Accordingly, we looked at six individual routes running a gamut of destinations and lengths: Boston-London, Boston-Orlando, Boston-Los Angeles, Chicago-Denver, Chicago-Cancun, and Los Angeles-Honolulu, for departures December 15 through January 4. We checked the best fares by originating date, with return dates in mid-January, enough later to avoid any holiday distortions, and the results showed more variation than consistency:

Clearly, it’s pretty hard to detect any overall consistent pattern in these fares. No individual date was in the same category throughout the three-week period. Keep in mind, too, that these fare differences are a moving target, and the results of such comparisons may well be different if you check in a week or a month.

The results show an obvious conclusion: Don’t rely on averages to select your travel dates. Instead, check the trip you actually intend to take.

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