Ask a travel nerd: 3 steps to booking holiday travel

I’ve always been a Grinch when it comes to holiday travel. Paying too much for airfare irritates every cell in my body. Spending $1,000 for a domestic round-trip ticket on a route that usually costs half that amount just doesn’t feel right, you know? So, while I’m happy to travel the world the other 49 weeks of the year, I try to spend the last two weeks of November and December at home.

For years, I’ve led a family campaign to celebrate Thanksgiving a week or two early. We could all feast together without the hassles of holiday travel if we shifted our calendars slightly. So far, my campaign has failed.

I’m gradually coming around to the idea that vacation travel is necessary for a reason. It is, indeed, inconvenient. Yes, airports are clogged with screaming children (including mine right now). And, yes, it is prohibitively expensive. But it’s about more than just money — it’s about family.

Okay, my small Grinchy heart hasn’t grown large enough to completely disregard price tags. Even if it’s more expensive than a regular trip, I still try to spend as little as possible when traveling for the holidays. Here’s what I’m thinking.

Step 1: Make a reservation around… now.

It has recently been difficult to determine the best time to book holiday travel. The pandemic disrupted how and when people traveled, causing experts to disagree on the best time to buy airline tickets.

The wrinkles in the data have been ironed out, and the picture is coming into focus. According to a recent Google Flights report, the best time to book mid-to-late December travel is right now — about 10 weeks before departure. This is true for both domestic and international flights.

That’s right, contrary to what your high-strung parents may have told you, booking months in advance does not save you money. Prices for December trips have dropped about $40 since this summer, according to data from Hopper, a travel booking platform. But they won’t be available for long: After reaching a low in October, Hopper predicts that fares will rise rapidly through November, reaching as much as $40 per day in the week leading up to the holidays.

Fuel costs are another factor that could influence future airfare prices. Oil prices have been rising since they reached a low earlier this summer. This could put even more pressure on holiday travel prices than usual.

Even more reason to book soon.

Step 2: Travel when others won’t

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

Even using points and miles isn’t always beneficial. In fact, according to a NerdWallet analysis of hundreds of airline routes, booking award travel during the holidays usually results in a lower cent-per-mile value than booking award travel at other times of the year.

Simply put, using miles to avoid high prices during the holidays is not a good idea. You’ll just waste a lot of miles rather than a lot of money.

There’s really only one option: Do something inconvenient that other travelers will not do. Among the options are:

  • Making reservations for the vacation itself. According to Hopper, flying on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day can save up to $114 per ticket on domestic routes.
  • We’re going on a long journey. According to Hopper data, flying on the Monday of Thanksgiving week and returning on any weekday the following week can save you more than $100 on flight costs.
  • Proposing a new family vacation in early December, when airfares are low. According to my own data, this has a roughly 0% success rate.

Step 3: Take into account total costs

It’s easy to become obsessed with airfare prices during the holidays and do everything possible to avoid paying exorbitant prices, even if it means an overnight layover at LAX or extending your trip to three weeks.

However, airfare is only one of many holiday travel expenses. Saving $100 per ticket by leaving a few days early may sound appealing, but what about the additional costs of the trip?

For example, if you aren’t staying with family, two days of lodging costs will easily offset (and possibly exceed) any airfare savings. There’s also the pet sitter, restaurant dinners you might buy to avoid another awkward meal with your family, and so on.

The point is that the sticker shock of $1,000 fares in December can cause some people (OK, me) to devise elaborate workarounds, but these workarounds can end up costing more in real dollars or mental health expenses. Do you really want to spend three weeks on a futon?

Saving pennies

You could be like me and avoid holiday travel entirely. You could also book flights at random and accept whatever ludicrous fares are available.

It’s better to take the middle path: be cost-conscious without getting lost in the weeds. If possible, book your trip in October, avoid the absolute peak dates, and consider traveling when others won’t, such as Christmas Eve. Keep in mind total travel costs, including accommodations and a pet sitter, and keep in mind that airfare isn’t everything.

Above all, concentrate on what is important: connecting with family.

But not too much, you know.

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