Finding Cheap Holiday Flights is All About Timing

By Jeff

This time of year we frequently get asked for tips to find the best holiday flight deals and our answer is pretty simple: it’s all about timing. When you’re flying for the holidays, when you fly and when you buy can make all the difference in the world, often to the tune of hundreds of dollars.

When to Fly 

You practically need a PHD to understand all the factors that go into airline pricing but the single most important factor is how full a flight is. If an airline has 100 seats on a plane, they might sell the first 10 at the lowest fare, the next 10 at a slightly higher fare, the next 10 at a still higher fare, etc. etc. So as a flight gets more booked up, tickets for additional seats on that plane become more and more expensive.

The problem with flying around Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years is that almost every flight eventually gets really, really full. It doesn’t matter where you’re going. Virtually all flights end up departing with a lot less empty seats than usual. But there are definitely some days that are worse than others, as you can see on the calendars below. The dates in red are the busiest days and likely the highest priced ones. If you can plan your trip so as to avoid those days, you’re likely to save some money. The dates in green are dates that are less popular and usually have the best bargains.

Best Days to Fly for the Holidays

When you’re planning your holiday flight, keep in mind that adjusting your travel dates by a day or two can sometimes save you hundreds of dollars!

When to Buy

The other important consideration when it comes to holiday travel planning is when to buy your tickets. While for most of the year we are quick to caution people about buying their tickets too early, for travel around Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Years booking too late is the much more serious concern. When airlines launch fare sales, they almost never offer discounts on flights that are already heavily booked. So waiting for fares to drop usually doesn’t work, especially if you are planning to travel on one of the “red dates” above. In those circumstances, it’s hard to imagine that booking too early would ever be a problem.  If you are traveling on other dates, you might have a little bit more of a cushion but we still advise you to book at least 2 months in advance.

Let us know if you have any questions. We’re here to help.

Jeff Klee is the founder and CEO of CheapAir.com. He started CheapAir in 1989 from his college dorm room after getting a crash course in the airline industry while planning a backpacking trip through Europe on a student’s budget. He and his team of 65 travel enthusiasts are on a mission to radically simplify the way people shop for travel deals.

33 Comments

  1. Hi
    We are wondering for flights for Oct 2013. Is it cheaper to book as soon as the dates are available. I know some airlines book 10 months ahead. We are looking from Seattle to Orlando. I know that Alaska has direct flights which are really nice as we have 2 boys and you have less worry with losing bags or having to land at a destination which has snow. Just wondering when is a good time to book. Also we would be looking at leaving either a Thursday night or Friday morning and coming home on a Sunday or Monday.

    Thanks

    • Hi Jacqueline,

      Since you are looking for flights in October of next year, you definitely have some time. What we recommend is to search for flights and see what the fares are pricing out at. This will give you a sense of costs. Airlines release airfares 330 days out from the current day, so in about 2 – 3 months you can start searching. It’s recommended that about 2 months out from your travel date would be the optimum time to buy. However, we do offer Price Drop Payback, where if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you the difference in the form of a travel credit, up to $100 per ticket! Feel free to contact us if you need any assistance.

  2. We are planning a family reunmion in Feb 2013 (9th thru 16th and don’t mind buying tickets well in advance since we have already paid a mega portion of the home we are renting for that week. Having checked and re-checked with all the suposedly discount providers we are continually amazed at the variance quoted day by day. Since this is not a heavy vacation time how do we arrive at the final OK we’ll buy now time?? Thanks Les 406 777 1084 or cell 406 381 3791

    • Hi Les,

      That’s a great question. You’re doing the right thing by checking the fares to get a sense of pricing. If you’re traveling domestically, we recommend to purchase about 6 – 8 weeks out from your travel dates. This is the window when fares are traditionally at their lowest, however its not always the case for every route. We understand that airfare fluctuations can be frustrating, which is why we offer Price Drop Payback, where if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you the difference in the form of a travel credit, up to $100 per ticket! If you need any assistance, feel free to contact us and speak with one of our travel advisers.

  3. Jeff,

    Very nice of you to share facts about when to fly to save some money.

    We do use your site too.

    Thank You

    • Hi Roger,

      Anytime! That’s what we are here for.

      Thank you for using our website.

      Jeff

  4. I have found that almost 99% of the time I get my tickets cheaper on your site than any others.even though I will price check with other companies I will always come back to your site to make my purchase. I have traveled to ireland which will be 5 times this coming trip the end of this month and accept for 1 time I think I purchased my tickets from cheap air. So keep up the good work and look forward to purchasing from you again in the future.

  5. I am looking at prices to travel to Perth, Australia around the beginning of 2013. Right now I’m a bit flexible with dates. When is the best time to get the best fares. Everything I’m looking at is way over $2,000.Also, is it better to depart and return on a weekday.

    • Hi Bev,

      Being flexible will definitely get you the cheapest fare. Australia’s peak travel season is during our winter months (November to March), which is why prices may seem high. Flying on a weekday is always better as those days are less traveled. The best days to fly are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday. If you would like assistance with finding flights, feel free to contact us and speak with one of our travel advisers.

  6. I want to book a flight from Calgary to Montego Bay somewhere around mid-December. Presently, the ticket prices seem really expensive. Is there a possibility that fares will drop soon? I’ve never traveled this route before, hence I’m uncertain when is the best time to book the ticket. I’m not interested in the multiple stop flights.
    Please advice.

    • Hi Esmie,

      The winter time is a popular time for travel to the Caribbean. We definitely recommend to purchase your tickets now, or as soon as you can since fares will likely only increase as it gets closer to the date of travel. We offer Price Drop Payback, where if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you the difference in the form of a travel credit, up to $100 per ticket! If you need any assistance, feel free to contact us and speak with one of our travel advisers.

  7. Is it true if you purchase on a Tuesday eve it is cheaper? and I am looking for flight round trip from Richmond Va to Tampa from 12/ 22 to 1/5

    • Hi Debra,

      Yes, it is sometimes cheaper to purchase on a Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning since mid-Tuesday is when airlines tend to release sale fares. (It’s not always, but you can find some great sales.) Since you’re looking to travel during the peak holiday season, we recommend purchasing your tickets now, since fares will likely only increase as it gets closer to the holidays. Currently, fares from RIC to TPA for those dates are starting at $483.65 (total) – per person, not including any baggage fees. You can always take advantage of our Price Drop Payback program, where if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you the difference in the form of a travel credit, up to $100 per ticket! If you need any assistance, feel free to contact us and speak with one of our travel advisers.

  8. How long are the travel vouchers good for, if there is a price drop?

  9. Hi Jeff,

    Well here is my situation, I will go and visit my mom after almost 6 years without seeing her so this is making me excited but because I was not sure about if I was going or not, I did not plan in advance.
    so the dates I am planning to go is the 2nd and 3rd week of January. Right now I know that the flying tickets are expensive and as you mention before trying to travel in a non-busy day is the best choice and that is why I choose to travel Saturday 5th.

    And my question is when should I buy my flying ticket, at the beginning of the year for example 2-3th of January?
    or when would it be the best choice?

    • Hi Hector, thank you for writing. If you are shooting to travel in January, you should buy a ticket as soon as you can, since that is coming up so quickly. If you can wait and go later, then you may be able to get a better fare if you can buy further in advance. In general, purchasing a ticket roughly 6 weeks prior to departure is a good rule of thumb. Let me know if you have other questions, and thanks for reaching out! Happy New Year.

  10. My family and I are planning a trip to Florida in October 2013. We are 2 adults and 2 kids ages 9 and 6.
    We are also 1st time flyers, any tips on how to get good prices and when to buy? Right now everything I have found is in the $1550 – ish estimate. Thanks for your help!!

    • Hi Laura,

      For flights in October, we recommend the optimum time to start searching for flights is approximately 8 to 9 weeks prior to your departure. We’re finding that 7 weeks is about the right time to buy for domestic flights. Being flexible with your dates is always the best way to save money. Try avoiding the popular days like Friday and Sunday. Let us know if you need any help. We’re happy to assist you.

  11. My husband and I along with our 2 daughters will be visiting Dominican Republic-Punta Cana from Dec 21, 2013 to Jan. 4th, 2014. We are concerned that about the price of tickets since is will during the holiday season and an internationally flight. When would be the best time to purchase our times. Thanks in advance for your help.

    • Hi Jennifer,

      For international flights during the holidays, we recommend searching for flights about 3 to 4 months out from your departure date to get familiar with prices. You can try searching for flights on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday since airlines tend to release sales on these days. Please let us know if you need any help with finding flights. We’re here to help you.

  12. When would be the best time to book a trip to Sicily for December 2013?

    • Hi Stephen,

      For international flights to Sicily in December, we recommend searching about 3 to 4 months out from your departure date to get familiar with the pricing. If you see fares going up then it’s unlikely they are going to come down again. If the prices are staying the same, then there’s a good chance they will come down later. As always, when you book with CheapAir.com you can take advantage of our Price Drop Payback program where if the price for the same itinerary goes down any time before your trip, we’ll pay you the difference in the form of a travel credit, up to $100 per ticket! Let us know if you need any help finding flights, we’re here to help you if you need it.

    • Probably now. What’s in Sicily SteveO.?

  13. Hi there, when would be the best time to book flights from Spokane to Orlando?
    Thanks!

    • Hi Stephanie,

      It’s all about timing and being flexible with your travel dates will get the cheapest airfares. Orlando is a popular destination all year round due to the many theme parks. The cheapest fares are starting at around $435 per person, not including any baggage fees that may apply. Anything $500 or less would be a good deal. We’re finding flights in April and May that qualify for the cheapest fares. If you need any assistance with finding flights, please let us know.

  14. Hello! We’re going to have a family vacation in the Philippines this coming December 25. Been monitoring the price since February it’s around $1, 186.00 now the price starting at $1397.00 and up. So is it best time to book now? Pls let me know. Thanks a lot.

    • Hi Florabel,

      You still have plenty of time to keep monitoring the fares. We’re finding 12-14 weeks out from December is a good time to buy, but I would recommend to continue to monitor the airfares. Please let us know if you need any assistance finding flights. We’re here to help you.

  15. We are planning our first family trip away for Christmas to St. Croix from East coast. Due to children’s school break we have specific travel time Dec. 20 to Dec. 30. Prices are very high presently. Did we miss buying at a lower cost? Should we buy now or is there a better time to purchase? I realize that it’s peak season. Please help. Thank you

    • Hi Tory,

      For travel during the holiday season, we recommend that travelers purchase as early as possible since flights for peak season during the holidays won’t be cheap. Airlines almost never discount flights during the busiest travel time of the year. If you’re able to be flexible with your travel days and flight times, you might be able to save a little. Please let us know if you need any assistance with finding flights. We’re happy to assist you if you need it.

  16. Hello I am planning a trip to Jacksonville FL December 14-17 2013 when should I buy a flight ticket or should I wait till the first week of December to buy looking for a good price thanks

    • Hi Kennith,

      For your flights, you’ll want to purchase as soon as possible. The longer you put it off, the more you’ll end up paying since we’re about 3 weeks away from your departure. Definitely buy now if you can! Please let us know if you need any help with finding your flights.

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