With the unofficial end-of-summer now past, this is a time that many would-be travelers start thinking about Thanksgiving flights. If history serves, more people will book flights for Turkey Day in September than during all the previous months combined. But do you really need to book this early?
As usual when it comes to air fares, the answer is: it depends.
Among other things, it depends on where you’re going, when you’re flying, and how flexible you are on your plans. Depending on your circumstances, it may be OK to procrastinate…or it may be very risky. Here are 5 questions that will help determine which category you fit into.
1. Are you set on flying on a particular airline or at a particular time?
One of the things that happens as you get closer and closer to Thanksgiving is that, not only do fares tend to rise, but the number of flights available at the lowest fare tends to decline. Here’s an example that might help explain:
Suppose you are travelling from San Diego to Chicago and the airlines have 5 different fare levels. The lowest fare is $400 and is offered for the first 10 seats, the next lowest fare is $440 and is offered for the next 20 seats, the next lowest is $500 for 50 seats, followed by $600 for 20 seats and $700 for the last 10. (This example is quite over-simplified, but the point is still valid.)
Let’s further suppose that there are 10 flights between these cities. On the day the flights open for sale all 10 have the $400 fare available.
Now, say that 6 months later 6 of the 10 flights have gotten full to the point where the $400 seats, and in some cases the $440 and $500 seats are gone. At this point, the lowest fare would still be the same–$400–but there will only be 4 flights to choose from instead of 10. Wait another month, and we might be down to 2 flights. Eventually it will be down to zero.
Because of this, the more particular you are about which airline or what time you fly, the more important it is to purchase your tickets early, to avoid the risk that the flights you want will sell out at the lower fare levels. In the above example, if you are willing to take any of the 10 flights, you can afford to wait because as long as any one of them has low fare seats available, you’ll still be OK. But that’s not the case if you have your heart set on one exact flight. (And keep in mind, the nonstop flights are often the ones that go first.)
2. Are you travelling with family?
It would make sense to think that if you’re buying a group of tickets together you could probably get a better deal, but that’s not true in air travel. On the contrary, if you’re traveling as a family of 4 and the flight you want only has 2 seats left at the lowest fare, the airlines will bump all of you up to the next fare category. When you’re dealing with very full flights, like you find around Thanksgiving, this comes into play quite often. At times, there might be some decent low fare options available for a single traveler, but only higher fares for a group of 4 traveling on the same plane(s).
And when you’re talking family travel, there is a whole other area to consider — seats. You may be able to wait and still get a decent ticket price, but you’ll have a hard time getting seats that are together. Unfortunately, airlines have become notably stingy about giving away the best seats on the plane without asking you to pay a premium. These days, more and more window and aisle seats are finding their way into that “premium” seat category — seats that the airlines charge you extra if you want to sit in. Booking early is the best way to get first dibs at the decreasing number of seats that don’t require an extra premium.
3. Are you flying home the Sunday after Thanksgiving?
Fact 1: Every year, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is among the Top 3 busiest travel days of the year.
Fact 2: The single biggest factor in determining the price for a particular flight is how full that flight is. (Click here for a semi-long-winded explanation of why that’s the case.)
Put these two together and you face a reality that flights for the Sunday after Thanksgiving fill up quickly and end up being extremely expensive as it gets closer and closer to the travel date. The same is true, to a slightly lesser degree, for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
What this means is that if you can schedule your flights to avoid the peak travel days (namely, Wednesday and Sunday), not only can you save a lot of money, but you can also buy yourself more time. But if you are travelling on Wednesday or Sunday, flights are already filling up and you probably shouldn’t wait much longer.
4. Are you going to Florida?
Lots of people go to Florida for Thanksgiving. As a result, we always see flights to the Sunshine state book up especially quickly. If we look at all the major destination cities and see how much more expensive Thanksgiving flights are compared with average fares at other times of the year, we find that the Top 6 cities with the most expensive premiums are, in order, Ft. Myers, Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Orlando, Miami, and Tampa. (Pensacola and Jacksonville are also in the top 10). This means that if you are going to Florida, there is extra pressure to book early before the flights you want sell out at the lower fare categories.
5. Do you like to gamble?
We can talk about air fares all day and dig through literally millions of statistics. But, ultimately, no one knows for sure when fares are at their low point. The airlines don’t even know, as they generally delegate those decisions to computers who continuously monitor bookings to determine if fares should be raised or lowered.
But what we do know pretty certainly is that, when it comes to booking for the holidays, the risk of buying too early is minimal compared to the risk of buying too late. Holiday flights eventually will fill up and there isn’t going to be any last minute fire sale. Sure, if you wait it out a little bit longer it’s possible you’ll get lucky and save $10, $20, or even $50. But it is much more likely that you will get unlucky and find that the flight you want is sold out, or the lowest fare is suddenly $100 or more higher. If booking flights for the holidays is stressful to you (like it is to many) it might be worth a little peace of mind to just lock something in now, even if you don’t have a guarantee that it will be the absolute rock bottom low point. And, of course, if you book through CheapAir.com you do get the benefit of our Price Drop Payback program that gives you some degree of protection if fares end up falling dramatically.
If you answered “No” to 1-4 and “Yes” to question 5, you can breathe a little bit easier for now. Your risk of getting burned by waiting too long is lower than it is for most. Otherwise, though, you probably want to start to get serious about booking. We know it seems early to be thinking about Thanksgiving, but there really is a lot of cash to be saved.
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