Top 5 tips for finding low holiday air fares

Booking travel around the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons can be challenging.  It is the one time of year where the airlines have a decided advantage, as more people want to fly than there are seats to fly them in.  As a result, the strategies that you use to find the lowest fares during the rest of the year, don’t always work around the holidays.

To make things a little easier, we’ve compiled a list of 5 tips to help better your odds of finding a low holiday airfare:

1. Book Early

We cannot emphasize this enough.  There is a myth that “if you wait until the last minute, airlines practically give away the unsold seats.”   Trust us when we say that that logic almost never works around the holidays.  With very, very few exceptions, the earlier you book, the better off you will be.  Ten weeks in advance is better than nine weeks; nine weeks in advance is better than eight weeks; eight weeks in advance is better than seven weeks, etc., etc.  This is because, although air fares change constantly, one thing that doesn’t change is the fact that as flights fill up, airlines stop offering seats at their lowest fare levels. You may not know this, but airlines typically offer 5 or more fares for each flight.  The first twenty people (roughly) will pay the lowest of the 5 fares, the next twenty people will pay the next lowest fare, etc. ,etc.   Holiday flights almost always fill up, so the fares keep rising.  As each progressively higher fare level fills up, the price for that flight will get higher.  So if you haven’t booked yet, you really shouldn’t wait much longer.  Prices will continue to rise as flights get more and more full.

2. Be Flexible with Dates

For flights on the peak travel days, the lowest fares may already be  sold out. If you can avoid those peak days, you can usually save some money — sometimes a lot of money. The calendar below should help make things easier. The dates in red are the busiest (and usually most expensive) days; the dates in orange are probably going to price out above average; and the dates in green give you the best shot at finding a holiday bargain.

3. Try Alternate Airports

If there is more than one airport near your origin or destination city, check them both. The more options you have in terms of airports and travel dates, the more likely you will find what may be one of the the last discount seats to where you are going.  Our system automatically checks some nearby airports for you (San Francisco and Oakland; Miami and Ft. Lauderdale; New York and Newark; Washington, DC and Baltimore), but you if you are willing to use other alternates, you should check those, too, by doing separate searches.

4. Don’t Wait Too Long Once You Find Something

Availability changes quickly around the holidays.   Often, there are only a handful of seats left on a given flight at a given fare.  So if you see a price you like on flights you want, don’t wait too long — grab it quickly.  What you see today will very likely not still be available tomorrow.  We get asked all the time: “Why is the fare on these flights so much more than it was yesterday?”.  The answer: because someone else snagged the seats first.

5. Be Realistic

We know you dont’ want to hear this, but travel around the holidays is almost always going to be more expensive than at other times of the year.  The airlines know that on the peak travel days demand for seats far exceeds the supply.  So they all increase the prices by adding surcharges, and limiting the availability of seats in the lowest fare categories.  If you went to Chicago last spring for $238 and now the fare is $320 over the holidays, don’t assume that this is an aberration and it will come back down.  Paying up to $100 more for a domestic flight during holiday time is not uncommon — in fact, prices go up even more than that if you don’t book far in advance.

Finding flights for the holidays isn’t always easy and isn’t always fun, but we’ll do our best to help you make it as pain free as possible.  Our flight search engine generally searches more combinations of flights than any other site on the internet, and often finds options that aren’t available anywhere else.  If you get frustrated or need help, our team of travel councelors is ready to assist you.  Freel free to call us at (800) 243-2724.  We’d like to help any way that we can.

12 Comments

  1. I hope this works becuase I wish I can bring my family for christmas.

  2. wow i’ll use these tips when i go to turkey!

  3. These tips are real. at this time l am stranded l need to buy a ticket to Fl. the ticket was cheaper and now it is double the price it was last night. l now know and l will remember these five tips all the time.

  4. Interesting info tip number 1. I bought my thanksgiving flight 3 weeks ago and now it is $67 cheaper!!! How do you explain that?

    • Lauren, it’s hard to say without knowing your exact travel dates but we can tell you that in the vast majority of cases booking sooner rather than later for the holidays does get you a better fare. There are, of course, exceptions and if your case is one of those exceptions I can understand why you aren’t too happy. We are constantly pressing the airlines to amend their policies with regard to fare reductions after a purchase. When a fare goes down after you buy a ticket, we believe you should be entitled to a refund of the difference. Unfortunately, the airlines do not see it that way and have remained pretty firm — once a ticket is bought it is bought. Admittedly, this means that when you buy a ticket from our site, from any other site, or from an airline directly, you are taking a chance. But from 21 years of experience monitoring air fares, I can say with certainty that you did the smart thing — in an overwhelming majority of cases, Thanksgiving fares are lower when booked in September than in October. It just sounds like you got a little unlucky. I don’t blame you for being frustrated but I think it’s important to point out to others still on the fence about when to buy — for the holidays, sooner is better than later, way more often than the reverse.

  5. The most aggravating thing that the airlines do is to have a fabulous sale and then when they add on taxes, etc the taxes are more than the original flight was. Why do they do that? Do they think that we don’t look at the total before we click and purchase it?

  6. My husband and I were recently both online at the same time booking flights for our family to travel at Christmas. We could not book four people at once because the price was much higher! So we decided to each book two of them. Within seconds of each other, we completed the booking information, but when I tried to complete the payment, it would not let me do so because the price was no longer available! My husband’s booking went through at that price. It actually jumped by almost $200 each person!! Within seconds!! How come? We waited for a few days but finally had to book the other two at a higher price, and were not even able to get them on the same return flight! Very frustrating!

    • Cavell, sorry for the frustrating experience. It sounds like there were only 2 seats left at the lowest fare on the flights you were looking at. This is actually quite common as airlines only allot a limited number of “discount” seats per flight. So in this situation, there would have been no way to book all 4 of you on those flights at the low fare — that is why that price didn’t come up when you did the initial search for your whole family. When you tried the separate searches with 2 passengers each, the price jumped for the second pair because your husband had taken the last two discounted seats. We’re sorry you had to go through this. This is why it helps to book early for busy travel periods — doing so increases your odds of finding discount seats available on the flights that you want.

  7. Booking early is an absolute joke.

    Do not book early, there is no difference in price two weeks before departure. This is a myth started by the airlines to get your money early and enable them to forecast flight schedules as early as possible.

    I’ve never profitted by booking early.

  8. These are really wonderful tips…these tips helps a lot to those who doesn’t have much experience of traveling…

  9. How early is too early . Can you book 6-8 months ahead of time if you know for certain (beyond death !) that you will be going to see Aunt Millie ?

    • Most airlines will accept reservations up to 11 months in advance. In most cases, you don’t want to book that early. There is usually a sweet spot between 1 and 3 months in advance where its close enough to the flight that airlines are offering sale fares, but far enough away that the flights aren’t too full. If you’re travelling for the holidays, however, and you are not super flexible on your dates or flights, it generally makes sense to book as early as possible because the flights will fill up and as they do they’ll get very expensive.

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