Ask a Travel Nerd: Is It Time to Book Holiday Travel Yet?

Despite ongoing uncertainty caused by the pandemic, it still makes sense to book your holiday travel early.
Sally FrenchAug 31, 2021

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.

This was supposed to be the “summer of freedom,” as “fully vaccinated people would be shedding their masks and greeting one another with a smile,” according to President Joe Biden in a June address. But with the return of mask mandates in many parts of the U.S., that summer of freedom melted faster than an ice cream cone on a sweltering afternoon.

Considering you may be unsure when your office will reopen or when you can resume maskless squats in the gym, you may not be thinking about winter holiday travel just yet. At this point, it might feel like even Santa couldn’t muster up enough cheer to get excited about 2021 holiday travel.

So should you make winter holiday travel plans yet? Here’s what to consider when deciding whether to make travel arrangements:

In economy class, last-minute travel is more expensive than booking in advance

A spring 2021 NerdWallet analysis of over 1,110 airfares found that for economy class airfares, booking 180 days out is cheaper than booking 15 days out. Data was based on information from 15 different airlines, included both economy and business class and had a range of routes, including international trips.

Booking window

Average economy class cash airfare

15 days out

$576.51.

180 days out

$464.77.

Fares averaged 24% more expensive when booked two weeks out versus six months out. So, if you’re thinking you might travel during the winter months, start looking at prices now as they're likely to only increase.

Holiday travel is generally the most expensive, no matter what

The analysis also took a look at flights booked for the peak winter holiday travel season (with departure dates of Dec. 22 and return dates of Dec. 29). Unsurprisingly, fares averaged most expensive for holiday travel. When booking economy class travel for those specific dates, the average price was $655.32.

Routes booked for the holiday season averaged 41% more expensive than routes booked roughly six months out during the standard season. There’s not much you can do about this reality other than be prepared so you’re not hit with sticker shock.

Should you book winter holiday travel now?

As far as costs go, it’s generally cheaper to book in advance instead of waiting until the last minute. But in the frazzled year of 2021, cost shouldn’t be the only factor when deciding whether to make holiday travel plans. Here are some additional factors to consider:

Reasons to wait

The COVID-19 outlook and safety rules keep changing

Among the biggest burns of summer 2021 was the realization that you shouldn't have thrown out your masks. Mask rules are back in many tourist hot spots, including Walt Disney World and Las Vegas. You might not want to head to Sin City if you need a mask the whole time you’re in the casino. Other places are undergoing debates about requiring proof of vaccination, which may sway your decision to travel there.

Additionally, as cases rise in some parts of the country, you may be less inclined to travel.

It can be disappointing (not to mention a waste of time) to book a trip that you ultimately opt out of. Consider whether the ever-changing safety rules and potential for rising case rates could influence your desire to travel.

It’s unclear what international restrictions will look like

While domestic rules incessantly change, international travel restrictions can be even more opaque. Some countries, including England and Canada, have recently made it easier to enter if you’re vaccinated. In 2021, you might find it appealing to stray far from home for the holidays, especially if you otherwise haven’t left the country in more than a year.

Whether international travel restrictions ease up or get tighter could affect your travel plans, so you might want to hold out for more clarity before deciding where to spend the holidays.

Reasons to book now

Competition for reservations may be higher than usual

According to the Transportation Security Administration, there were 18 days in July 2021 when travel numbers surpassed 2 million people per day. To put that figure into perspective, no days surpassed the 2 million threshold for the first five months of 2021 combined, and 10 days in June.

Clearly, the desire for air travel is rapidly increasing, yet airlines are struggling to keep up. Flight cancellations have become frequent, and some airport counters have devolved into scenes of havoc. The situation has gotten so rough for consumers that it prompted the U.S. Senate to investigate how airlines dealt with workforce shortages, why that led to cancellations and delays, and how they handled passenger frustrations.

The holiday season could be worse as people seek to make up for last year’s missed holiday travel. You might want to book now to secure a reservation given the high demand and short supply.

Cancellation and change policies are still pretty good

Change and cancellation policies are pretty good these days, making it relatively easy to secure reservations now and cancel if things go south closer to the holidays.

During the pandemic, most major airlines removed change fees from most fares indefinitely (basic economy is usually excluded). That means you can typically change your flight with no extra charge, aside from a fare difference if you change your ticket to a more expensive one. The policy isn't quite as good as a full refund, but you won’t have to eat the cost should you cancel — you can just apply it to another trip down the road.

Car rental cancellations are almost always fully refundable, and hotel cancellations are often fully refundable if made more than 24 hours before check-in. Of course, policies vary by company and sometimes even by individual reservation, so read the fine print before booking.

The bottom line

At this point, you might feel like the COVID-19 grinch is ready to steal a second holiday season in a row. But realize that reservations might book up, or at least quickly get expensive. At least consider booking holiday travel now, or otherwise you could find yourself left out in the cold.


How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:

Get more smart money moves – straight to your inbox
Sign up and we’ll send you Nerdy articles about the money topics that matter most to you along with other ways to help you get more from your money.