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While we’re all still processing the end of an anticlimactic summer — one that was supposed to be the triumphant return of travel — it’s already time to start thinking about the 2022 holiday season.
Like last year, you might not have an all-out, bucket-list, everybody-in-your-family-will-come type of trip. Maybe the new COVID-19 travel restrictions have squashed your dream of spending the holidays wandering through Christmas markets in Europe or watching New Year’s Eve fireworks from a cruise ship.
But if you are planning to travel for the holidays, now is a good time to start researching flights and hotels. Especially if you haven’t traveled much this year, you’ll want to keep in mind these tips for booking holiday travel.
1. Book early before prices go up
Last-minute deals are essentially nonexistent around the holidays. According to data from the travel app Hopper, domestic airfares for flights the week of Christmas trended more expensive in 2021 than in 2019 and 2020, with the average airfare up 71% compared with last year. The cheapest time to buy these flights is mid-September, but at the very least, travelers need to book before Thanksgiving to avoid the highest prices.
Similarly, flights during the week of Thanksgiving should be booked before Halloween for cheaper fares. Tickets in November could be 40% higher than if you booked in October.
2. Fly on the holiday to save
For the best deals, consider traveling on the holiday. Flights on Christmas Day will mean celebrating the holiday before or after, but there's often greater availability and lower costs.
If you aren't willing to travel on the holiday itself, avoid the peak travel days to minimize the likelihood of delays that will impact your trip and time with friends and family. Keep this timing in mind for return flights as well. This year, Hopper predicts the busiest and most expensive days to travel will be the Sunday after Thanksgiving and the Sunday after Christmas.
To avoid delays, book an early morning flight. It's less likely to be affected by other delayed flights throughout the day. Plus, if your flight gets canceled, there will be more opportunities to get to your final destination the same day.
3. Redeem points for your flight or hotel stay
If you’re looking at prices and thinking of using points instead, some of the same strategies for finding cheap cash rates apply.
In some cases, you’ll be able to save points when you book early or travel on low-demand days because loyalty programs, like Southwest's, use a dynamic award-pricing system. When the cash prices are low, it’ll cost fewer points or miles as well.
Unfortunately, if you don’t have enough points to book, it’s too late to open a new credit card and earn the welcome bonus in time. Many cards have a three-month period to earn the welcome bonus, and it may take up to another eight weeks to get the bonus points deposited into your account.
4. Check cancellation and change policies
The COVID-19 pandemic remains unpredictable, and it’s worth checking the change and cancellation policies before you book anything.
Several of the largest U.S.-based airlines have done away with change and cancellation fees for most fares, with the exception of basic economy tickets. One option to consider is Delta Air Lines, which is waiving change and cancellation fees on basic economy through the end of the year.
Though third-party airfare aggregators like Expedia and Travelocity are a great way to see flights on multiple airlines, you'll often have better protection and better access to customer service if you book directly with the carrier. Wherever you book, be aware of when you’ll be entitled to a refund or credit if you or the airline cancels.
You might also consider purchasing travel insurance, but read the fine print, since many policies won't cover losses related to travel bans or foreseeable events. Many credit cards offer certain limited travel protections, so familiarize yourself with the benefits of the card you use to book tickets as well.
5. Line up your travel perks for the holiday season
When the holiday season is upon us, you’ll be glad you took advantage of every available perk — or earned them ahead of time.
The big one for this year is TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. Lines at TSA security were staggeringly long at some airports this summer, and they might not get much better by the holidays. If your credit card comes with one of these security benefits, consider enrolling before it’s too late.
If you've been traveling this year and are close to earning elite status or the Southwest Companion Pass, think about how you can plan your fall travel to earn these perks ahead of the busy months. They might be easier to earn than you think. Hotels and airlines have lowered their elite status requirements this year. A quick mattress run in October might be all you need.
Not only will elite status benefits kick in as soon as you earn them, but you’ll have more time to use them since they’ll be valid through the end of next year.
» Learn more: The beginner's guide to points and miles
If you're planning holiday travel in 2022
If you take just one tip for booking holiday travel, it should be this: the earlier, the better. You’ll find cheaper rates and more availability. Plus, looser cancellation policies mean you can make adjustments later.
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:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card