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

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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:

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

While domestic rules incessantly change, 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.

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.

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

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.

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