How Late Is Too Late To Book Holiday Travel and Still Get a Decent Deal?

elegant housewife sitting on sofa in the modern living room booking airplane tickets online on a smartphone.
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Traveling for the holidays can be stressful, and COVID-19 only makes things more complicated. With breakthrough infections and the worry that we can spread the virus to our unvaccinated loved ones, many of us are putting off booking our holiday travel.

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If that sounds like you, then you may be wondering how long is too long to put off booking those flights. Even if you can find something at the last minute, the cost could be several times more than you would normally pay.

However, the cost of travel, whether it’s flights or hotel rooms, can be complicated. Prices can vary based on a number of factors, and not just on how close you are to your travel date. Cost also depends upon how many people are traveling on that particular day or even your destination airport.

Let’s take a look at some of the things that affect the cost of travel and how you can do so without exorbitant costs.

Make Your Money Work for You

When To Book vs. When To Fly

If you are wondering if there is a “best” time to book your holiday travel, it turns out that there actually is. Unfortunately, that time has already passed; Fortune reports that the best time to book your travel is mid-September.

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But don’t worry, because all hope is not lost. Fortune also noted that ticket prices for Thanksgiving soar 40% at the start of November. Thus, booking your Thanksgiving travel before the end of October will help you keep your airfare under control.

Kelly Sunderland, senior director of communications at TripActions, confirmed this. But she also pointed out that when you fly is just as important as when you book. “Often the drop dead time for booking holiday travel is by the end of October; however, just as important is knowing when to fly. For instance, the cheapest day to fly for Thanksgiving and Christmas are on the holiday itself; the most expensive return date (and the most crowded) is the Sunday following the holiday.”

Make Your Money Work for You

As Sunderland mentioned, airfare is bound to be high if you travel the Sunday following the holiday. If you can return on Saturday or Monday instead, you can most likely save money that way.

Lastly, flying the day before Thanksgiving can be particularly expensive. “For Thanksgiving travel, travelers should avoid departing the day prior to Thanksgiving if they are looking to save money and avoid crowds,” Sunderland said.

More: 10 Secret Ways To Find Really Cheap Flights

While certain days are the most popular for a reason — they are usually when travel makes sense for most people — the takeaway here is that you can save money if you are able to be somewhat flexible. Even flying one day sooner or later can make a big difference if it means avoiding those most popular travel days.

Many airlines and booking sites have a “flexible dates” option that can make it easier to find cheaper rates. They also have low-fare calendars that show the cheapest rates a few days before and after the dates you specify.

Lastly, flying on less popular days means airports will be less crowded, which is especially important due to COVID-19. Thus, this is one of the best ways to fly under the current set of circumstances.

Use Alternate Airports To Save Money

While this trick isn’t necessarily limited to holiday travel, you may be able to save money by flying into alternate airports. However, Sunderland pointed out that some of the usual routes may not be available during COVID-19. “Travelers should also consider flying into alternate airports — though they should be sure to do their research, as many routes have been consolidated or eliminated due to COVID-19.”

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The good news here is that technology makes it easy to find these alternate routes. For example, booking sites like Kayak.com allow you to add nearby airports with one click. Doing so will add all airports within a certain radius. Of course, the important thing is to be sure these routes are still available and that you’ll be able to arrange transportation from the airport to wherever you are going.

Best Hotels and Airlines for Holiday Travel

Not all hotels and airlines are the same when it comes to booking holiday travel. Some may have better offers and be more flexible than others.

When it comes to airlines, Forbes reports that the following airlines are best to consider and shine when it comes to these specific areas:

  • Delta Airlines: Highest on-time percentage
  • Southwest Airlines: Best savings on checked bags
  • American Airlines: Booking flexibility
  • Virgin America: Most legroom/amenities
  • Alaska Airlines: Best rewards for travel

What about hotel chains? Since you may be traveling a lot during the holidays, you will probably be at ease staying at a hotel that has handled COVID-19 particularly well.

Learn: How To Save Money on Hotels Anywhere in the World, Any Time of Year
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NerdWallet studied this very issue and found that the best hotel chains for handling the pandemic are Hilton and Hyatt, awarding the chains a 4.8/5 each. The runner-up is Marriott, which received a 4.4/5.

The Bottom Line

If you are traveling for Thanksgiving, try to book your travel before the end of October if you want the best rates. In addition to booking before November, you can save money on airfare if you are flexible by a day or two on your departure and return dates. Using alternate airports can also save you money. Hence, flexibility can go a long way in reducing your travel costs.

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Last updated: Oct. 4, 2021

About the Author

Bob Haegele is a personal finance writer who specializes in topics such as investing, banking, credit cards, and real estate. His work has been featured on The Ladders, The Good Men Project, and Small Biz Daily. He also co-runs Modest Money and is a dog sitter and walker.

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