The quick answer is that fares won’t change a lot between now and November, but you can figure fares are likely to be lowest September, October, and early November.
As I noted when I looked at Thanksgiving travel, the big online travel agencies (OTAs) routinely mine millions of transactions and compute exactly when fares are lowest for any given route.
The Roller Coaster Pattern of Flight Pricing
Estimates for 2016 fares aren’t necessarily based on trends for 2015 and 2014, but holiday airfares generally follow consistent year-to-year patterns.
Fares are first posted 10 to 11 months in advance as “wish list” prices that airlines faintly hope people will pay. But those rates don’t last long. Fares decline gradually to a point around five to six weeks before departure, then rise gradually until about three weeks before departure, then rise rapidly up until the departure date.
When to Buy Christmas Flights
Among the current OTA findings:
- CheapAir says September will be the best time to buy. Oddly, CheapAir’s figures for 2015 would certainly discourage you from buying really early: Holiday fares show decided peaks for tickets purchased in mid-May and late June.
- Orbitz says buy in October and predicts, very specifically, that fares will dip on November 6 and 7.
- Hopper shows only minor increases between September and mid-November, with prices rising sharply after that.
Other sources follow these same patterns. And they generally conclude that the optimum lead-time on international fares is longer, to the point that anyone considering holiday travel to the Caribbean or Europe this year should probably start searching right now.
Regardless of source, most data from the OTAs indicate that the actual fare differences are relatively small for a month or so in advance of the optimum date and a month or so after the optimum date. So if you search carefully, you can come close to getting the lowest fare right away or until relatively late.
At Christmas, as with Thanksgiving, all of the experts emphasize that when you fly is much more important than when you buy.
Airlines can tell, just by looking at the calendar, which dates will be the busiest. They price tickets for those days at top levels from the get-go.
The Best Days to Fly This Christmas Are …
Unlike Thanksgiving, Christmas fare patterns vary from year to year, depending on which day of the week the major holidays fall. This year, Christmas and New Years fall on Sundays, so most people will also be off work Mondays: December 26 and January 2. Thus, the best days to fly are likely to be December 21 or earlier, January 4 or later, and the midweek days of December 27 through 29. Fares are actually lowest on the actual holiday days, December 25/26 and January 1/2, but most people prefer to eat and watch TV rather than fly on those days.
Best Options for Booking Holiday Flights
If you haven’t already bought your tickets, you have several options:
- For maximum security, buy now. You probably don’t risk more than around 5 percent of the fare or so, and even if you find lower fares later, you may find that the best schedules, flights, and seats are no longer available.
- If you’re fixated on getting the very lowest fares, wait until late October, but keep watching for deals.
- If you’re a gambler, keep trolling the various search systems and wait for a flash sale until mid November. But keep in mind that flash sales typically impose blackouts during peak holiday periods.
- If you plan to stay at a hotel, also consider air/hotel packages, which often offer relatively good rates throughout the pre-holiday period.
- If you like to be comfortable on international flights, you’re likely to find good holiday season deals in business class, as airlines try to offset low demand from business travelers who want to be home for the holidays.
Beyond the question of when to buy tickets, the various recommendations on finding the best holiday fares typically include the “usual suspects” of checking alternate airports, finding connecting fares lower than non-stops, and looking for lower fares at inconvenient hours. But our perennial favorite tip for buying airline tickets comes from our colleague George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog: “When you find a good deal, pounce.”
More from SmarterTravel:
- 10 Rookie Mistakes People Make When Booking a Flight
- How to Celebrate Holidays Aboard a Cruise
- 8 Holiday Travel Splurges That Are Worth the Price
Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.