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When to book, when to fly: Planning travel during the school year

The key to getting the best fares for flights over the holidays and other busy travel periods is knowing how far in advance you should book, and when you should fly. Wait too late to book and you could find no seats available the day you need to fly. Travel on the wrong date and you could pay a lot more than if you had flown the day before or after.

Divining your travel strategy may seem like it requires a crystal ball, but luckily, we’ve done the research to determine when you need to book and when you need to fly over popular travel periods. In recent months, we’ve written articles about how to get the best fares for summer trips to Europe and fall study-abroad programs in Europe. This month, we’ve come up with strategies for getting cheap seats for other important travel dates on students’ calendars like Thanksgiving and spring break. We consulted two student travel experts?Rob Becker of Travel CUTS and Carol Seymour of STA Travel?to help us give you the best advice.

Read our tips and then mark your calendars to make sure you don’t miss out on the deals.

Back-to-school and back-home fares

Getting good fares to fly back to school in the fall and back home in the spring shouldn’t be too difficult, as many budget airlines such as Southwest and AirTran offer cheap one-way fares throughout the year. However, the lowest one-way fares often have to be booked 14 to 21 days in advance. If you’ve waited until the last minute to book, your best bet is to call a student travel agency, where you can often get special one-way fares for students that require little or no advance booking. Note that you’re likely to find lower prices by flying midweek rather than over the weekend.

Thanksgiving fares

When it comes to flying over the year’s busiest week for travel, both Seymour and Becker said that you should book as soon as you know your course schedule. “Any thoughts of getting a better deal by waiting should be banished,” said Becker. “Our student fares fill up quickly at this busy time, as do any discounted fares that the airlines may be offering directly to the public.”

To find available seats and avoid the highest prices, you should avoid flying on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the following Sunday. “If you are able to depart the Tuesday night before [Thanksgiving] and return on the Monday after, then availability will open up quite significantly,” said Seymour.

Christmas fares

Ideally, Christmas fares should be booked at the same time you book Thanksgiving fares. However, you do have a bit more flexibility about when you fly since college holiday breaks tend to stretch out over several weeks, making competition for seats on specific dates less intense. “I would recommend securing your domestic flights by the end of October for optimal flight availability and itineraries,” said Seymour. Becker notes that availability for flights departing after December 19 is already limited, so if you can fly out earlier, you’re more likely to get a seat and a better price.

On a side note, if you have a week or so after Christmas before you have to head to school, you might consider taking a trip to Europe. “This can be an ideal time to take advantage of the low fares offered to Europe starting on December 26th,” said Becker.

Winter study-abroad fares to Europe and Australia

If you’re heading to Europe in January to start a winter/spring study program, you’ll be able to take advantage of some of the lowest Europe fares of the year if you book by October. To get the cheapest fares, avoid flights departing around New Year’s or on weekend days. Waiting until the last minute isn’t advisable, but you are more likely to find good last-minute fares to Europe during the winter than during other seasons.

Availability for winter flights Down Under is different story. Australia’s peak travel season begins in January, and many flights in the beginning of the month are already sold out. If you have plans to participate in a study program, booking now is essential. “Don’t hold off on booking,” said Becker. “Rates don’t go down, but space fills up. There’s nothing worse than having a program starting on January 10 in Australia, with no way to get there until the 16th.” You’ll likely have little choice as to when you fly, and with January being peak travel season, prices will be high no matter what.

Spring break fares

Student travel agencies often sell spring break fares to popular destinations such as Cancun and Jamaica as a part of packages that include hotel accommodations. Although you’ll be traveling in March, to get the lowest-priced packages, you often must book and put down a deposit in the fall. “STA’s Spring Break packages are stocked and ready to distribute by the first day of school,” said Seymour. “The peak deposit time for spring break is in November and final payments are always due by or around the 15th of January. If you have a particular hotel in mind, it’s best to beat the crowd and get your deposit in by the end of October.” Since most schools only give a week or two off for spring break, you won’t have much flexibility for travel dates, but if you can fly midweek, you may find lower rates.

Don’t forget to read our other features if you want to know the best time to book Europe fares for summer trips or fall study-abroad programs.Throughout the upcoming school year, will continue to publish stories with strategies about when to book and how to get the best rates on fares, vacation packages, and more. Also keep an eye on our deal section for the latest student travel offers.

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