The holidays mean cooler weather, richer foods and the opportunity to give thanks for the many blessings in our lives. For many of us, they also mean traveling to destinations both near and far to spend time with friends and loved ones.
If you plan on boarding a plane this holiday season, it pays to plan ahead. While you don't have to buy those tickets for Thanksgiving or Christmas today, you shouldn't wait until the last minute, either. Check out these tips from travel pros for finding cheap holiday fares.
1. Know When to Book Your Flight
If you want to save money on airfare, keep this tidbit in mind: a 2016 airfare analysis by the booking site Hipmunk found that holiday travelers should book fares about six weeks in advance, or during the week of Oct. 3 for Thanksgiving travel. For Christmas, travelers should book flights during the week of Nov. 7.
"During those two weeks, an average traveler will likely pay about 14 percent less than the most expensive holiday airfare available this year to the same place," said Hipmunk data scientist Chris Miller in a company press release. "But that's just an aggregate average. Depending on the destinations, savings will range from 10 percent to more than 50 percent. Once you're within the six-week window, prices will take some big jumps."
Those flying into smaller airports should book even earlier, according to the Hipmunk analysis. But, they'll likely still be hit with higher fares. Hipmunk estimates holiday airfare will be an average of 18 percent higher for Thanksgiving and 20 percent higher for Christmas for flights to markets outside of the top 20 most popular U.S. holiday destinations, such as Orlando, New York City and Chicago.
Several sites, including Hipmunk and Expedia, have features that allow travelers to compare fares at nearby airports in case it makes financial sense to drive a little farther for a better deal. Find out the best time to book your travel plans, no matter when they are.
2. Anticipate When Prices Will Fall
Figure out now if you should book your holiday travel early or late, depending on when prices are predicted to fall.
If travelers miss the early discounts, Hipmunk’s analysis recommends they wait until Nov. 14 for Thanksgiving and Dec. 12 for Christmas to make reservations. During these times, fares are expected to drop to 11 percent and 18 percent lower than peak prices for each respective holiday.
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Several sites, including Hipmunk, have tools to track fare changes. For example, travel booking site CheapAir tracks 11,000 fares each day to update its Holiday Cheap Flights Report, which also highlights the busiest — and likely most expensive — travel days around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
In some cases, booking travel later rather than sooner is cheaper. Last-minute bookings typically show lower daily rates, as hoteliers are looking to fill as many rooms as possible, said Sarah Gavin, vice president of communications for Expedia. For example, hotel room rates might fall when hotels aren’t busting at the seams. So, if you aren’t worried about possibly being room-less this Christmas, it could pay off to wait to book a hotel.
Several travel booking sites, including Expedia, have tools devoted to finding last-minute deals on hotels, flights and more.
3. Be Creative and Flexible
Historical data from the travel search engine Skyscanner shows savings windows falling a little later, but holiday air travel is never cheap. So, it makes sense to seek deals in other ways.
“Knowing when to book is important, but also how, like flying indirect or out of nearby airports and flying out with one airline and back with another, can help lower costs,” said Randi Wolfson, Skyscanner head of communications for the Americas.
For holiday travelers who don’t have their destinations set in stone or are flexible with travel dates, Wolfson also suggests using Skyscanner tools — including the site’s Everywhere search and Cheapest Month view — to ferret out the best fares.
4. Sign Up for Email Newsletters and Alerts
If you're interested in resort travel, choose a few favorites in your target vacation destination. Then, sign up for the properties’ email newsletters, said Amy Kerr, director of public relations for the digital marketing and advertising agency MP&A. Hotels' reward programs can save you bundles, too.
“Resorts often reward loyal followers by announcing their specials and holiday offerings to them first, usually via emails," said Kerr, whose firm markets resorts such as The Somerset on Grace Bay in Turks and Caicos and Nisbet Plantation Beach Club in Nevis. "It beats taking a long time to go through various booking sites searching for what they hope is a good rate."
It might sound too good to be true, but you can also score deals by signing up for airfare alerts. According to Airfarewatchdog, 40 percent of travelers say they've saved a minimum of $50 by purchasing flights through an airline deal alert email. For best results, sign up for several different alert emails and don't wait to jump on a sweet deal.
5. Take Advantage of Promo Codes
Many travel providers offer early booking discounts and promo codes that expire fast, so it can pay to search sites and shopping portals like RetailMeNot and Retail Codes regularly. Promo codes are a great way to book travel plans on the cheap.
For example, Orbitz is currently offering $100 off select hotel and flight packages, using the code "100VACA." According to the fine print, the trip must span at least four nights and total $1500 or more in hotel and plane tickets.
Additionally, aspiring vacationers can score deals by booking their trips through Travelocity. The site is offering the chance to save $150 off $1,500 with a three-night stay using the code"Packages100off." Book by Oct. 2 to take advantage of this deal.
In the months leading up to the holidays, keep an eye out for these types of travel offers.
6. Opt for a Rewards Credit Card
Some rewards credit cards offer impressive sign-up bonuses and other incentives that could make them good choices for savvy shoppers looking to save on travel expenses.
"Credit card sign-up bonuses are the fastest way to earn a large number of miles," said Patti Reddi, who operates the travel site The Savvy Globetrotter. "Most of my miles are earned by signing up for credit cards that earn miles or points and give a high sign-up bonus."
The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card offers new account holders a 40,000-mile bonus when they spend $3,000 within the first three months. Additionally, cardholders earn two miles for every $1 spent.
One of the benefits of this card — compared to some of the branded travel cards — is that you're not restricted to one airline or hotel. Miles are good for the life of the card, and there are no travel blackout dates. While the card has no annual fee for the first year, users should expect to pay $59 a year thereafter.
"Many of these credit cards have an annual fee, but the fee is usually waived the first year," said Reddi. "I usually cancel most credit cards before I have to pay a fee for the second year."