Holiday airfare strategies: Does waiting longer ever work?


When it comes to planning your holiday travel, sooner is better. Or is it?

For example, if you’re flying home for Christmas, you’ll need to book tickets anywhere from 14 to 20 days in advance, in order to find the lowest airfare, according to advance booking data from Expedia. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a low fare for Thanksgiving, you missed your window — it ended Sept. 23. Sorry, flights are now up to 15% more expensive.

This holiday season, timing will be more important than ever. Wait too long and you could be stuck with a higher price. Book too early, and you’ll miss the best rates.

Take Lori Grube, who started planning her Thanksgiving trip to Hawaii a year ago. No kidding.

Grube, a law enforcement dispatcher in Gaines, N.Y., began tracking airfares and researching alternate airports in order to get the best fare to Honolulu. She determined that a 2 1/2-hour drive to Toronto could save her a bundle on airfare and that the best airline would be United. She downloaded the airline’s app and checked it obsessively for the best prices.

“The prices fluctuated quite a bit and when there was a price I felt was good, my husband didn’t think it was good enough,” she recalls. “So I forged ahead.”

Finally, she booked her tickets nine months before her vacation. Her price for two first-class seats to the Aloha State: $2,258. Not bad.

More: Thanksgiving flights: Expect record crowds at U.S. airports this year

Here’s why booking early is usually a sound strategy: Airfares are generally headed higher, thanks to rising fuel prices, says Mahmood Khan who directs Virginia Tech’s hospitality and tourism management program. “Air travel will be costlier and early reservations are needed,” he says.

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Hotels will also offer early discounts, but watch out for “gotchas.” Hotels will offer more pre-payment options, which means that in exchange for a modest discount, your room is totally nonrefundable. If your holiday plans change, that could cost you dearly.

But zigging when everyone else zags can sometimes also pay. An airfare analysis by Yapta.com found that, on average, air ticket prices sometimes drop closer to the departure date. Its data shows that 29% of airlines’ price drops occur 21 days or more in advance, dropping to 16% in the 15- to 21-day advance purchase time frame, followed by an increase to 27% 8 to 14 days prior to departure. Then prices drop again within one week of departure, as 29% of airline price decreases happen within this window.

Yapta also evaluated advanced booking volatility for hotel rates and found that rates drop consistently the closer to check-in, falling from an average of $242 per night to $228 per night, at an average net savings of $33 to $37 per night.


“Most price drops occur between seven days prior to arrival and check-in,” says Yapta spokesman Jeff Pecor. “At 30 days out, less than 1% of hotel bookings have a price drop, meaning the prices are stable.”

Travel experts say you can play the system by making your reservations early, as Grube did, or by changing your destination. Instead of visiting family, take the week and go abroad.

“Prices from many U.S. cities to European destinations remain competitive,” says Jessica Bisesto, who watches airfares for the travel site TravelPirates. “The U.S. dollar is strong against the euro these days, which makes travel throughout Europe more affordable than ever.”

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If you don’t like those choices — book way in advance or go somewhere you’ve never been — then there’s a third option (besides staying home, of course). You can call the industry’s bluff and wait.

According to booking data compiled by StudentUniverse, a travel site that caters to cost-conscious college students, no one wants to fly on the Tuesday of Thanksgiving week. “If you fly then, you can save a considerable amount on the ticket cost. So can flying home on Thanksgiving morning,” says Danielle Dougan, a spokeswoman for StudentUniverse (this of course assumes you can convince your family to eat on Wednesday).

Does it ever feel like for these periods of peak demand — Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years — that the travel industry, and especially airlines, have you over a barrel? Does it seem as you’re playing a game in order to just get a reasonable price?

The answer to both these questions, of course, is “yes.”

If you’re reading this story now, you’ve probably missed all the good deals for Thanksgiving, and maybe the rest of the year. Maybe it’s time to call the travel industry’s bluff (see below). Stay flexible, wait until almost the last minute, when travel companies get desperate to fill seats and hotel rooms. What have you got to lose?

• Look for the “secret” cheap days. The day of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years tend to be quieter and cheaper for airline tickets. A little flexibility can save you a lot of money.

• Want a whole week? Try “dead week” — the first week of the year. It’s typically the quietest week of the year and you can find great prices on tickets and accommodations.

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• Be opportunistic. Many Caribbean destinations, struggling to recover from a wave of hurricanes, are expected to start discounting. Even places that aren’t affected, but are in the same region, might lower prices. And don’t feel guilty, these economies depend on tourism.


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

  • Skeptic

    I live in Alaska. If you want to go from AK to the Lower 48 for Christmas/New Years in any given year, you either need to buy your tickets by Labor Day or be prepared to fly standby on Christmas Day etc. If more than 1-2 are traveling, forget about getting to your destination together. And fares will be super high, as much as traveling to Europe might normally cost. So, while this article may be accurate for travelers living in places where driving, buses, trains, and alternate airports provide a range of options, and where there’s lots of airline capacity, it doesn’t apply to places that are capacity limited during the winter months.

  • Noah Kimmel

    Working in the industry, the general guidance I can give is this –

    For holidays: yes, companies know it is the holidays too, so prices are generally high from the day they release the schedule, especially for desirable dates / times. They know they will sell most of the seats. Your best bet is to snag the off-peak days in advance. Instead of after school on a friday or sunday afternoon, search for a saturday morning departure and tuesday return. Those will be cheaper further out. Otherwise, prices can lower about 3-6 weeks before travel as most peoples’ plans are set and we can see if there is additional supply or not. It is a risky game though as flights may be sold out. Sometimes these are flash sales or restricted by channel though – i.e. booking direct only or needing a promotion code. I fly Christmas day a lot of years, fares are dirt cheap, airports are quiet, and most people have friendly holiday cheer, one of the best days of the year to fly!

    For non-holidays: Rates are generally tied to supply available. The more full a hotel or flight is, the higher the price. However, more than 2 months out, they don’t look at specific flights or dates, they tend to use long term average prices. One of my clients said 70% of their bookings occur within 3 weeks. So revenue management is very generic further out (unless it is a known event or holiday). Come 1-2 months prior, that’s when real revenue management comes into play, and the companies look at specific dates and flights and start really modulating. So then they check how many sold vs. how many they expect to sell. If they sold more, raise prices. If they sold less, lower prices. Keep in mind, this is usually in relation to competitors prices as well – so relatively low isn’t necessarily cheaper. That is why you usually see stable prices, a drop 1-2 months out, then a gradual rise back up with some bigger modulations about a week prior. Do note, some destinations and routes are unique and the analytics systems have gotten really good at tuning supply and demand — there is less generic advice available that can really save you money. I cringe everytime I see the “buy your ticket on a tuesday” advice as it really isn’t true – it is generally a misreading of data due to schedule releases / changes on tuesdays, not any mysterious sale.

  • Annie M

    Noah is right on with his advice. If you need to absolutely be somewhere (a tour or cruise) I would never wait until 14-20 days before for best airfare.

  • IGoEverywhere

    Thanksgiving, Easter week both before and after, and Christmas, and every 3 day holiday; in that particular order are excuses to have airlines raise their rates. Thanksgiving has the fiercest 2 days of the year; the Wednesday before and the Sunday after as everybody has to be back in school or at work on the Monday following. Christmas is not nearly as bad as most people have a couple of weeks to play with alternate dates. After 50 years+ in this industry, I have found that the best idea it to save the money, sometimes 1/2 with air and hotel, travel the week before or after the holidays and be able to relax.

  • Maxwell Smart

    few years back when working for a large tour operator/wholesaler … the day seats were loaded into a CRS(computer res system) by airlines, they would grab all the cheap seats they could find & either turn them into groups or get airline to give them an allocation. Once the airlines let them do this, without any $$$ upfront, then airlines decided they should have some skin in the game & insisted on a small non-refundable deposit.

    So effectively, this operator cornered the market on cheap Xmas seats, remembering that in Australia, Xmas school holidays run for 7-9 weeks.

    The operator packaged the air, with accommodation, car hire etc. & didn’t disclose the actual airfare (no

  • John McDonald

    since SEP 11, 2001, airfares between Australia & North America have generally been more expensive, except for the few months after the event. Why ?
    A Canadian airline, called Canada 3000, who were the launch airline for the Airbus A330-200, who were probably the 1st long haul low cost airline, although they did give you checked baggage & meals & drinks, they did go for high density seating (340Y in 2-4-2 configuration) not the highest density.

    Anyway, they dramatically lowered the fares between Australia & Canada.

    They folded after SEP 11, as Canadian govt didn’t support their airlines like USA did.

    Since then, many have looked at chartering aircraft from OZ end. Catch is with charters, you have to fill them in both directions. Not much use filling in one direction & having to give away in other direction.

    Now have heard that for Xmas 2018, there maybe some new flights operated by a full serivd

  • Skeptic

    My point about Alaska and holidays is not so much that fares go up — that happens everywhere. What I was trying to explain is that because we’re part of the USA, and many/most of us have family in the Lower 48 (we have lots of members of the armed forces, for example, at our bases here), and it’s virtually impossible to drive to visit out-of-state family for the holidays, especially in winter, there is NO CAPACITY left on any flights by around September from the day before school is out (Dec. 21) until the day after the kids go back (Jan 8). So unless you can jump on reservations 3 1/2 months before Christmas, you hunker down and do your family visiting via Facetime or Skype.

    I grew up in Oz. Back then no one would dream of flying all the way to the States or UK to visit family for only a week or so. Plus, our school hols weren’t that long (early Dec. to early Feb.) and it was summer! So we had a quick, very expensive, vague telephone chat with grandparents via trunk call, waiting to be put through by the operator and then talking mainly about the weather . . .

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