Ask a Points Nerd: (How) Should I Fly for the Holidays?

If you must travel for the holidays, here's some advice for how to book hotels and stay safe while flying.

Sam KemmisSeptember 3, 2020
How should I fly for the holidays?

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Remember when we used to make plans? It was so long ago now you may not remember, but we actually used to start booking our holiday travel in the summer before prices rose to unaffordable levels. That’s right: We could predict what the world would be like months in advance back then.

Times have certainly changed; now, some travelers are starting to wonder whether and how to plan for the holidays. Does it make sense to buy plane tickets? What about using points and miles? And what are the chances of a second (or is it third?) wave of the pandemic?

I’ve spent the last few months wading through COVID-19 travel policies, spreadsheets full of airfare and hotel data and other boring industry effluvia so you don’t have to. And I’ve got a few nuggets of advice for anyone thinking about booking holiday travel.

For starters: Why rush?

Should I book now?

Years of conditioning have taught us all the perils of waiting until the last minute. But if you haven’t noticed, this year is not like the others, and travel demand is unlikely to reach normal no matter what happens in the next few months.

In other words: You shouldn’t feel any rush to book travel until you’re ready.

In fact, you might end up paying more if you book in advance rather than closer to your travel dates. Recently, I analyzed a bunch of hotel price data and found that the cost of booking the same room dropped dramatically when booking 15 days in advance, compared to booking four months in advance.

That is, the same rooms cost an average of $157 when booked within 15 days compared to $212 when booked four months in advance. And while this trend might not hold into the winter or through the holidays, it’s certainly a good indication that you’re unlikely to save money by booking hotel rooms now.

The trend isn’t quite as dramatic for airfare, though it's possibly more remarkable, since booking within 15 days has historically been a recipe for getting fleeced.

Which airline should I fly?

This one’s easier: Delta.

We performed a big analysis of airline policies in response to COVID-19 and found that Delta had the best overall rating, with Southwest and Alaska hot on its heels.

I won’t bore you with all the details here, but some of the factors we took into consideration include:

  • Mask policy enforcement.

  • Blocking seats and limiting capacity.

  • Offering flexible change and cancellation policies.

This last bit is especially important when booking holiday travel this year: Make sure the tickets you purchase can be changed or canceled without incurring a fee. This has gotten significantly easier with various COVID-19 waivers and four major airlines, including Delta, all announcing the elimination of most change fees. Be aware of restrictions that remain around basic economy fares.

What about points and miles?

Hotel points and airline miles can usually offer good workarounds for sky-high holiday prices. Notice that pesky “usually.” Since cash prices are so low, using points and miles is unlikely to offer better than average value this year.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use miles, just that you won’t get especially good bang for your buck from them right now.

Will it be safe?

That’s the trillion-dollar question, isn’t it? I’m no epidemiologist, so I’m reluctant to wade into these waters, but there is something important to keep in mind: Where are you planning to travel in December?

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington offers public projections for the pandemic broken down by country and state. These reveal some pretty startlingly different scenarios for different parts of the country.

For example, the daily per capita infection rate in California is projected to rise from 42.6 per 100,000 today to 155 per 100,000 by December. New York state in December is projected at 30 per 100,000, up from the current 4.4. Utah’s rate is expected to skyrocket to 179 per 100,000 from today's 13.5.

Of course, these are only projections, and nobody knows what will actually happen by December, but it’s good to keep in mind when planning travel. You don’t want to go from a relatively safe spot into a hot zone (or a hot zone into a safe spot, for that matter).

In fact, for everyone’s sake, my personal take is that we should all err on the side of staying home.

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