More Americans are planning to travel this holiday season than last, with 71 percent predicted to book trips between Thanksgiving and December 31. This number represents a 6 percent increase on 2014’s rates, according to a recent Orbitz.com survey. Further, 66 percent of those polled planned to travel by air while taking advantage of fares that are about 9 percent lower than last year’s rates.
Despite lower flight costs, holiday travel budgets are expected to remain high. On average, Americans plan to spend $2,195 on holiday trips, up slightly from the $2,177 spent last year, according to Orbitz. Still, savvy shoppers might be able to save by comparing airfares online, provided that they know where to look.
With the number of travel sites growing faster than a 5-year-old’s Christmas list, finding the best deals can be challenging. Not only do travel booking sites vary widely when it comes to features, but it’s also tough to rank sites objectively, as airfare fluctuates based on routes searched and other factors.
Here are 10 of the best and worst airfare sites to consider when planning your holiday travel, with price comparison rankings based on recent fares for two holiday travel routes chosen at random. With a little luck, you might be able to save enough to spring for a hotel room rather than sleep on a cousin’s couch or an air mattress in the basement.
1. Skiplagged (Not Publicly Traded)
Total of two fares tested: $493
One of the lesser-known companies on the list, Skiplagged is more famous — or infamous — for its “hidden city” deals than its straightforward itineraries. Hidden city deals refer to circumstances in which travelers book multi-legged flights that feature connections in the places they really want to go. In some cases, it costs less to book a flight with a connection, and then not take the second leg of the trip, than it would to book a flight to the actual city desired. While these hidden city fares can offer steep discounts, travelers should know that they will be unable to check bags if they use this option.
For the randomly chosen holiday travel routes, Skiplagged found competitive fares for flights leaving December 23 and returning December 30. The St. Louis-to-Atlanta option totaled $210 with fees, while the price was $283 for a flight from Atlanta to the Twin Cities. However, users were directed to visit the airline websites for booking and specific flight details. If you don’t mind this inconvenience, or are considering hidden city travel, Skiplagged might be a strong choice for finding deals.
2. Priceline (PCLN)
Total of two fares tested: $493.40*
Like many of the travel booking sites on the list, Priceline returned a St. Louis-to-Atlanta fare for $210.20. It also listed a Delta fare from Atlanta to Minneapolis for $283.20, which was in line with offerings on several other sites. As a bonus, Priceline eliminates the search engine stalls and restricted fares common with Expedia and Travelocity.
Additionally, Priceline offers a “Name Your Own Price” feature that saves travelers up to 40 percent on fares. However, the caveat is that buyers can choose only their airports and travel dates while having to leave other flight factors up to chance. If you are flexible about flight times, preferred airlines and stopovers, Priceline might be the way to go.
*The “Name Your Own Price” feature was not used during this search.
3. Kayak (Now Part of the Priceline Group)
Total of two fares tested: $494.20
For adventurous travelers looking for fun holiday getaways rather than a cheap routes to relatives’ Christmas celebrations, Kayak might be a desirable option. Using the Kayak Explorer feature, holiday travel shoppers can locate the best flight deals anywhere in the world for a given time period. Explorer is a great option for those who don’t have a specific locale in mind.
Additionally, Kayak’s search returned a Delta fare of $284, including taxes and fees, for the Atlanta-to-Twin Cities trip, which was comparable to prices found on several other sites. However, the deals site tied Orbitz on the short hop from St. Louis to Atlanta, providing a round-trip fare of $210.20.
4. Google Flights (GOOG)
Total of two fares tested: $495
Google Flights is a popular choice among holiday fliers. The travel booking service bearing the behemoth search engine’s name found a fare of $211 for the St. Louis-to-Atlanta flight and an offer of $284 for the Atlanta-to-Minneapolis route. In addition to providing competitive results, this search option, powered by ITA Software, is easy to understand and features an airline summary box that can save time for comparison shoppers.
5. Hipmunk (Not Publicly Traded)
Total of two fares tested: $495.90
Along with providing competitive search results, Hipmunk allows users to filter flights by “agony” factors to optimize for price, reviews, length and layovers. Further, travelers can set up flight deal alerts and track airfares by email. This deals site found a fare of $285.70, including taxes and fees, for the Atlanta-to-Minneapolis route and returned a fare of $210.20 for the St. Louis-to-Atlanta flight.
6. Expedia (EXPE)
Total of two fares tested: $495.62
Like many of the other sites on the list, Expedia returned a fare of $210.20 for holiday travel between St. Louis and Atlanta from December 23 to December 30. However, the lowest listed fare for the Atlanta-to-Minneapolis-St. Paul flight over the same days was $286.42. What’s more, special restrictions applied, and travelers are unable to discover the airline they would be flying until after beginning the booking process. Still, the convenient bundle deals for flights and hotels might make Expedia appealing to some users.
7. Travelocity (Subsidiary of Expedia)
Total of two fares tested: $495.62
While it found a fare of $210.20 for the St. Louis-to-Atlanta trip, Travelocity’s lowest listed fare for the Atlanta-to-Minneapolis flight over the same days was $286.42. And as was the case with Travelocity’s parent company, Expedia, the airline remained a mystery during booking, and special restrictions applied on sales. Would-be travelers should note that many fares are non-refundable. For best results, review your specific flights for any restrictions regarding cancellation and ticket changes.
8. Orbitz (Subsidiary of Expedia)
Total of two fares tested: $515.38
During one set of searches, this site returned the highest round-trip fare — $305.18 including taxes, fees and service charges — for a December 23 through December 30 flight from Atlanta to Minneapolis-Saint Paul. However, the site offered better rates for a trip between St. Louis and Atlanta over the same dates. A round-trip flight came to just $210.20, including taxes and fees.
9. CheapOair (Not Publicly Traded)
Total of two fares tested: $517.20
This site’s fares fell on the high end of the spectrum, with an Atlanta-to-Minneapolis-St. Paul flight totaling $283 with taxes and fees. Similarly, CheapOair found a fare from St. Louis to Atlanta for $232.20, including taxes and fees.
Despite the increased rates, some of the site’s special features could help travelers save. CheapOair quickly filters results to show flight options at nearby airports, as well as flexible fares that fall within three days of your entered trip dates.
10. MSN Travel (Part of Microsoft)
Total of two fares tested: $568
The MSN/Bing flight-comparison tool, powered by Skyscanner, didn’t deliver particularly good deals in this instance, finding a fare for $293 from Atlanta to Minneapolis and $275 from St. Louis to Atlanta for the dates listed. But, unlike many other travel booking sites, MSN does include fares from Southwest, which is known for offering low rates.
Because many sites offer similar fares and even operate under the same corporate umbrellas, it can be smart to check a few well-known booking sites and compare them with smaller sites that feature last-minute deals, student discounts and other unique features. What’s more, fares fluctuated among the sites on this list, even throughout the same days. To find great deals, travelers have to check multiple sites and employ creative booking techniques. For example, if you are booking more than one fare, try searching for each ticket separately.
“Due to airlines’ tiered pricing systems, it’s possible to get a better deal by shopping for one passenger before buying the rest of your tickets,” said Ros Banks, online marketing manager for the travel site Wimdu. “If there is only one seat left at the lowest price and you want to book two or more tickets, all tickets will be bumped up to the next price level.”
It can also pay to book travel on Mondays or Tuesdays, when prices tend to be at their lowest. Additionally, travelers should opt to book at least 45 days in advance and head to the airport at times when they might prefer to be hitting the hay or the snooze button.
“Taking advantage of red-eye flights instead of prime time flights can also help customers save a dramatic amount of money,” said Tom Spagnola, CheapOair’s senior vice president of supplier relations. “Furthermore, the cheapest time of day to fly is at the times that most people do not desire to fly, such as red-eyes or overnight flights with connections.”
All in all, sleeping on the plane might be more comfortable than enduring a night on your cousin’s couch or that air mattress in the basement.