Ask a Travel Nerd: 3 Steps to Booking Holiday Travel

Book in October and consider traveling on off days to avoid high prices and overwhelming crowds.
Sam Kemmis
By Sam Kemmis 
Edited by Giselle M. Cancio

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With holiday travel, I’ve always been a Grinch. Paying too much for airfare rubs every cell in my body the wrong way. Shelling out $1,000 for a domestic round-trip ticket for a route that usually costs half that just feels wrong, you know? So, while I’m happy to travel the world the other 49 weeks of the year, I typically try to stay home at the end of November and December.

For years I’ve waged a campaign within my family to observe Thanksgiving a week or two early. Shifting our calendar slightly would mean we could all feast together without all the headaches of holiday travel. So far my campaign has, well, failed.

I’m slowly coming around to the idea that holiday travel is important for a reason. Yes, it’s inconvenient. Yes, airports are clogged with screaming kids (including, now, mine). And yes, it’s just plain expensive. But it’s about something bigger than budgets — it’s about family.

OK, my small Grinchy heart hasn’t grown big enough to ignore price tags altogether. I still try to spend as little as possible when traveling for the holidays, even if it’s more expensive than a regular trip. Here’s how I think about it.

Step 1: Book right about … now

Recently, it’s been hard to know when is the right time to book holiday travel. The pandemic messed with how and when people traveled, leading experts to disagree about when airfare prices would be lowest.

Those data wrinkles have been ironed out, and now the picture is coming into focus. The best time to book mid-to-late December travel is right now — about 10 weeks before departure, according to a recent report from Google Flights. That’s true for domestic flights as well as those to Europe.

That’s right, despite what your high-strung parents might have told you, booking months in advance doesn’t actually save money. According to data from Hopper, a travel booking platform, prices for December trips have dropped about $40 since this summer. But they won’t drop much longer: After bottoming in October, Hopper expects fares to rise rapidly through November and by as much as $40 per day in the week leading up to the holidays.

Another factor that could affect airfare prices moving forward: Fuel costs. After bottoming early this summer, oil prices have been on the rise. This could put even more pressure than usual on prices for holiday travel.

All the more reason to book soon.

Step 2: Travel when others won't

Everyone wants to know the secret to scoring cheap airfare during the holidays. The secret is that there is no secret: Prices are high throughout Thanksgiving week and the last two weeks of December, period.

Even using points and miles doesn’t always help. In fact, based on a NerdWallet analysis of hundreds of airline routes, booking award travel during the holidays usually yields a lower cent-per-mile value than booking award travel at other times.

Put simply: Using miles during the holidays is not a good way to avoid high prices. You’ll just spend a ton of miles rather than a ton of cash.

There’s really just one option: Do something inconvenient that other travelers are unwilling to do. Options include:

  • Booking on the holidays themselves. Hopper estimates that flying on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day can save about $114 per ticket on domestic routes, for example. 

  • Taking a long trip. Flying the Monday of Thanksgiving week and returning any weekday of the following week can save you over $100 on flight costs, according to Hopper data. 

  • Pitching a new holiday for your family in early December, when airfares are low. This has a roughly 0% success rate, according to my own data. 

Step 3: Consider total costs

It’s easy to get hyper-focused on airfare costs around the holidays and do everything possible to avoid high fares, even if it means an overnight layover at LAX or extending your trip to three weeks.

But airfare is only one of many travel expenses during the holidays. It might sound great to save $100 per ticket by leaving a few days early, but what about the additional costs of the trip?

For example, if you’re not staying with family, two days of lodging costs will easily eliminate (and potentially exceed) those airfare savings. And then there’s the pet sitter, the restaurant dinners you might buy to avoid another awkward meal with your family, etc.

The point is, the sticker shock of $1,000 fares in December can cause some people (OK, me) to find elaborate workarounds, but the workarounds can end up costing more in real dollar terms, or mental health expenditures. Do you really want to stay on a futon for three weeks?

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Grinching pennies

You could be a Grinch like me and avoid holiday travel altogether. Or you could book travel willy-nilly and accept whatever ludicrous fares are available.

Better to take a middle road: Being cost-aware without getting lost in the weeds. Book travel in October if you can, avoid the absolute peak dates and consider traveling when others won’t, like Christmas Eve. Keep total travel costs, including accommodations and pet sitter in mind and remember that airfare isn’t everything.

Most of all, focus on what matters: Connecting with family.

But not, you know, too much.

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