Holiday travel advice: It’s not too late to book!

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By Christopher Elliott

Good news: It’s not too late to book a trip for the holidays.

Yes, experts are warning that you have to buy your flights and hotel rooms soon. But that’s not universally true.

How early? Well, if you’re reading this now, you might want to open a new tab and start looking for flights or hotels — that’s how early.

“Book your trip as soon as possible,” advises Carol Mueller, vice president at Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. “Because the longer you wait, the more expensive the trip will be.”

And that’s if you’re lucky. Flights, rental cars and rooms are selling out fast. In fact, it may be difficult to book for Thanksgiving, which is rapidly approaching. Christmas and New Year’s are getting harder by the day, too.

That has some people rethinking their holiday travel plans, according to Joe Cronin, president of International Citizens Insurance

“Many family and friends who typically travel long distances for the holidays are canceling their travel plans and opting instead to stay local or visit with others who are within driving distance,” he says.

That doesn’t have to happen to you. You can still take that dream trip during the holidays — or see your relatives who live across the country — with a little smart planning. Prices are surprisingly affordable, with the exception of hotels. But as always, there’s also some last-minute drama, and as I mentioned already, I have some completely irreverent travel advice that could land you a bargain.

When are the travel holidays?

The holiday travel period in the United States is a stretch of time between the last week in November and the first week in January. It includes Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. 

Generally, it’s one of the worst times of the year to travel, partly because of bad weather, and partly because of high demand. Almost everyone wants to go somewhere during the holidays. And that has never been more true than in 2023. Here’s my personal advice for holiday travel.

What’s the outlook for holiday travel prices?

Overall, domestic travel prices are down compared to the last holiday period.

  • Thanksgiving airfares have fallen 14 percent from this time last year (to $268 per ticket), and Christmas airfares are down 12 percent (to $400 per ticket), according to Hopper.
  • Car rental rates average $42 a day during Thanksgiving, a 17 percent decline from last year. The daily rate at Christmas is $10 higher, about the same as last year, Hopper predicts.
  • Gas prices are steady. The Department of Energy predicts fuel prices will remain virtually unchanged, despite the turmoil in the Middle East. Nationwide, fuel prices should stay around $3.62 per gallon.
  • Hotel rates are ticking higher, though. Prices for Thanksgiving stays are averaging $206 per night (up 9 percent from last year). For Christmas, the average room rate is $233 a night (up 7 percent), according to Hopper.

Most prices may be lower, but that’s only half of the equation, says John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group. Airfares and rental cars may be a little more affordable — at least compared with the last holiday season — but that assumes there’s availability. And travel advisors are seeing record demand going into the 2023 holiday travel season.

“Things are tight,” says Lovell. (Related: ♬ It’s the most frustrating time of the year — to fly♪.)

Is holiday travel safe in 2023?

One of the most common questions I’ve been getting from readers: Is it safe to go? It depends. 

“Selecting your travel destinations needs a careful review,” explains Mahmood Khan, a hospitality and tourism professor at Virginia Tech. Recent conflicts in the Middle East and ongoing problems in Eastern Europe have made holiday travelers more tentative. Staying in the United States or visiting safer developed countries during the holidays may be the best bet, say experts.

OK, where are the crowds?

Most Americans drive to their holiday destinations, and getting accurate predictions on driving intentions is difficult. But Priceline pulled some of its airfare booking data and found holiday air travelers were all headed to the same places, more or less.

Here’s Priceline’s list of the most popular Thanksgiving destinations in the U.S., along with the average roundtrip airfare to those places.

  1. New York ($453)
  2. Atlanta ($396)
  3. Dallas ($511)
  4. Los Angeles ($419)
  5. Chicago ($478)

The list of destinations shifts around for Christmas and New Year’s, but New York is always at the top, and Atlanta is in second place on two lists.

How about internationally? “Our review of this year’s top Thanksgiving destinations revealed that Mexico is a top choice for Americans traveling internationally — specifically Cancun, San Jose Del Cabo and Puerto Vallarta,” says Daniel Durazo, director of external communications at Allianz Travel Insurance.

Travel on these days if you want to avoid holiday travel pain

If you can’t avoid the destination, try to travel on the least crowded day during that particular holiday period. Expedia’s analysis of holiday booking data suggests that during the busy Thanksgiving holiday travel period, a flight departing on Monday, November 20, is 12% cheaper than the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Departing on Friday instead of Sunday will save you money, too.

Same thing goes for Christmas. Leave on Tuesday, December 19, or on Christmas Eve, and you’ll save 25% versus flying on Friday, December 22. Those are slow days because most people prefer to fly later. Other uncrowded days: Christmas Eve or the holiday itself. Flights on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day are historically less busy.

Wait! Prices are falling fast

I told you this holiday travel season had some drama, so here it is: This week, Kayak released its latest airfare information. It suggested airfares were falling fast. Prices for domestic travel over Thanksgiving weekend are down 13% from last year, and even more surprising, they’re down 7% in the last month. Cities like Richmond, Va., San Jose and Baltimore have seen price drops of nearly 30% since last Thanksgiving.

So that raises the question of whether you should follow the conventional wisdom (book now) or wait a little longer for fares to drop further (highly unconventional).

If you have a flexible schedule, you might play the odds and wait. But don’t wait too long.  

Elliott’s totally irreverent holiday travel advice

You don’t read this column for its conventional wisdom. So here’s a little more unconventional advice for your holiday trip.

Get out of town — way out of town

That’s the advice of Tracy Kennedy, a travel advisor who specializes in Australia and New Zealand. “We’ve noticed an uptick in travelers from the United States looking to escape their cold winters for the sunny coasts of Australia, particularly Sydney,” she says. My personal favorite is Tasmania. I’m hoping to make it down to Hobart for the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race on Boxing Day one of these days. 

Stay flexible (and wait)

If you don’t care where you travel for the holidays, here’s some totally contrarian advice: Wait. “Many airlines also have sales during certain times of the year,” explains Kyle Kroeger, CEO of the online travel planning site ViaTravelers. “So if you’re planning a trip for Christmas, keep an eye out for those dates.” Kroeger likes using Google Flights to compare prices and flight times,

as well as other websites like Skyscanner and Expedia. But this advice only works if you’re flexible and can go anywhere.

Avoid the holiday altogether

One of my favorite pieces of totally irreverent holiday travel advice is to avoid the holiday altogether. My best Thanksgiving trip ever was to Vienna, Austria, where there is no Thanksgiving holiday. George Panayides, a digital nomad, is headed to Thailand and Cambodia, where Christmas is not a religious holiday. (If you really want to avoid Christmas, try one of the American-friendly Muslim countries, like Qatar. I spent Christmas there two years ago and it was a day like any other.)

What’s your irreverent holiday travel advice?

Are you staying home? Going abroad? Waiting until the last minute? The comments are open.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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