Slaying the Holiday Flight Fare Beast: When to Book for Big Savings

Post originally Published February 10, 2024 || Last Updated February 10, 2024

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Slaying the Holiday Flight Fare Beast: When to Book for Big Savings - Start Shopping Early - The First Bird Gets The Worm

Slaying the Holiday Flight Fare Beast: When to Book for Big Savings

As the holidays approach, so do the dreaded high prices for airfare. It's easy to put off booking that flight home to see family, especially when sticker shock sets in the moment you search for fares. But experienced travelers know - the early bird gets the worm when it comes to scoring holiday travel deals.

Starting your search well in advance is the number one tip for saving money on holiday flights. Prices tend to steadily rise as you get closer to Christmas and other peak dates. By shopping early, you can often lock in the lowest fares before they skyrocket.

For example, one couple I know always books their December flights home to the Midwest around Labor Day weekend. Every year without fail they score roundtrip tickets from the West Coast for under $300. But when their procrastinating friends wait until late October or November to book the same route, they end up paying $600 or more since all the cheap seats are long gone.
Another friend has family scattered across the country. She likes to buy all her holiday tickets in January or February when fares are at their lowest. Yes, that's nearly a year in advance! But it guarantees she gets the absolute cheapest rates, usually saving 40% or more compared to last-minute holiday bookings.

The key is determining when airlines release their holiday flight schedules and start accepting bookings. This varies by carrier, but is typically around 10 months prior for Christmas and Thanksgiving travel. Popular routes will see prices start creeping up a few months after schedules open as demand outpaces supply.

What else is in this post?

  1. Slaying the Holiday Flight Fare Beast: When to Book for Big Savings - Start Shopping Early - The First Bird Gets The Worm
  2. Slaying the Holiday Flight Fare Beast: When to Book for Big Savings - Track Prices and Set Fare Alerts
  3. Slaying the Holiday Flight Fare Beast: When to Book for Big Savings - Aim for Departures on Less Popular Days
  4. Slaying the Holiday Flight Fare Beast: When to Book for Big Savings - Consider Connecting Flights vs Nonstop
  5. Slaying the Holiday Flight Fare Beast: When to Book for Big Savings - Check Alternate Airports for Better Deals
  6. Slaying the Holiday Flight Fare Beast: When to Book for Big Savings - Use Private Browsing to Find the Lowest Fares
  7. Slaying the Holiday Flight Fare Beast: When to Book for Big Savings - Leverage Airline Sales and Promotions
  8. Slaying the Holiday Flight Fare Beast: When to Book for Big Savings - Pay with Points to Cut Costs Even Further

Slaying the Holiday Flight Fare Beast: When to Book for Big Savings - Track Prices and Set Fare Alerts

Monitoring airfares and setting up alerts can help you pounce when prices drop on your desired holiday travel dates. While booking early grabs the lowest starting fares, prices aren't static. They can fluctuate up and down depending on demand. Savvy travelers leverage technology to stay on top of these shifts and snag an even better deal.

My friend Jen swears by Google Flights for tracking holiday airfare. She simply enters her route and travel dates, then toggles on price tracking. Google will chart prices over time and email alerts when there's a significant drop. This feature allowed Jen to save over $100 per ticket on her family's Christmas trip back home to Ohio. She booked the flights in March when prices were already on the rise. But Google notified her in May when the fares temporarily took a dip, and she quickly rebooked at the lower rate.
Frequent flyer devotee Gary relies on his airline's mobile app for tracking holiday deals. The minute he booked his Thanksgiving tickets, he set a fare alert in case the price went down later. Sure enough, just a week before departure the airline ran a short sale, and Gary's app pinged him. He called the airline, had them reissue his ticket at the sale price, and scored a $75 rebate.

Meanwhile, Alex prefers broad airfare metasearch sites like Kayak and Skyscanner for alerts. He says they cast the widest net and notify him anytime his route sees a price drop on any airline. Using this strategy last December, Alex saved over $200 when Skyscanner alerted him to a temporary fare sale on his preferred carrier three weeks before Christmas. He immediately jumped online and rebooked.

The key with airfare alerts is acting fast once you receive notification, as holiday sale fares get snatched up quickly. Be ready to rebook on short notice if your alert pings a price drop. Also know that some airlines will offer a rebate if prices go down after you book (usually within 24 hours if you call right away). Plus, many credit cards provide price protection and will refund the difference in fares if your booking drops before travel.

Savvy travelers know that flying on less popular days can yield major savings on holiday airfares. While everyone else clamors for flights on Christmas Eve or Thanksgiving morning, you can score serious deals by picking less in-demand departure dates and times.

My friend Marie has mastered this cost-cutting strategy over years of holiday travel between the U.S. and France. She always departs on December 26th or 27th when airfares plummet after Christmas. While hordes of people scramble for seats before the 25th, Marie patiently waits an extra day or two. She consistently saves $300-500 on her transatlantic tickets compared to Christmas week flights.

Similarly, early December is peak season for ski resorts out West as schools start their winter break. My Colorado-based family used to pay a premium to fly on the 15th or 16th when demand peaks. But a few years ago we experimented with leaving on December 8th, just as the season kicked off. By giving up a few days on the slopes we saved almost 40% on airfare. Now we happily depart before the rush each year.
For Thanksgiving, Tom and Sue dodge the busiest travel days by flying on Thanksgiving morning when airports are deserted. Rather than contributing to the Sunday or Wednesday crowds, they take the first flight out Thursday. With minimal hassle navigating security and boarding, they actually make it to dinner on time.

Even shifting your departure by a few hours can create big savings as desirability of flights varies throughout the day. Morning business commuter routes are pricier than late-night red eyes. Mid-day flights tend to be cheaper than early bird or post-work options.

My friend Ellen leaves her parents' house at 3am on Black Friday for the airport because she scored an insanely cheap red eye back home. It's not fun waking up at 2am after Thanksgiving dinner, but the $150 she saved makes it worthwhile. Similarly, Hannah always departs on the 6am “redeye” out on Christmas Day. She'd rather unwrap presents at 3am than pay $400 more for a noon flight.

Slaying the Holiday Flight Fare Beast: When to Book for Big Savings - Consider Connecting Flights vs Nonstop

The temptation of a nonstop flight is strong when booking holiday travel. But consider searching for connecting options before assuming direct is best. With the right connection, you can sometimes save substantially compared to nonstop fares.

My friend Alyssa flies from Phoenix to Indianapolis every Christmas. One year the cheapest nonstop quote was $492 roundtrip. But on a whim Alyssa expanded her search to include one-stop routings. She discovered an option through Las Vegas that only cost $328 roundtrip– a 34% savings by adding just one short layover! The connection was only 40 minutes in Vegas, and her total travel time increased by only 2 hours versus the nonstop. But she happily traded a small amount of additional time for over $150 in savings.
Marcus runs into the same situation booking between Los Angeles and Miami. Nonstop flights always hover around $500 over the holidays. But he can typically find connections through Dallas, Houston or Atlanta for $350-400. The extra stop adds 1-3 hours to his trip, but saves him at least $100. An easy choice, Marcus says, for a guy who travels with movies downloaded on his tablet.

Connecting can also provide savings on international flights. My friend Megan visits her sister in London each November. When searching for deals one year, Megan skipped right past the $980 nonstop quote and found an option through Iceland for just $712. The layover in Reykjavik stretched her travel time, but she didn't mind since it saved her nearly $300. Plus she got to briefly explore a new country in the process!

Be creative when considering connections. Often the biggest savings come from pairing budget airlines with majors. Susan flies annually to see her son in Berlin, where ultra low-cost carrier Eurowings has a base. Rather than pay $1,200 for a nonstop on Air Canada, Susan books separate tickets. She'll take WestJet from Vancouver to London for $650 with a connection, then hop over to Berlin on Eurowings for another $120. Total cost: $770, with the lengthy London layover giving her time to explore the city.
Similarly, you can stitch together discount airline tickets stateside. My aunt travels from LA to New Orleans every December. She skips the $425 nonstop and instead books separate tickets on Frontier and Spirit with a connection in Las Vegas. Her total costs usually come out to around $275-300 roundtrip, even after paying for a hotel overnight in Vegas. For that kind of savings, an extra day of travel is worthwhile.

Slaying the Holiday Flight Fare Beast: When to Book for Big Savings - Check Alternate Airports for Better Deals

Expanding your airport options can unlock huge savings on holiday flights. Most travelers auto-pilot to their closest or most convenient airport out of habit. But taking a little extra drive time can reward you with cheaper fares at alternate airports farther afield.

My friend Diane lives in Los Angeles but always flies out of LAX since it's only 25 minutes from home. Last Thanksgiving she priced flights to visit her parents in St. Louis. The cheapest fare out of LAX was $482 roundtrip. Out of curiosity Diane searched flights from nearby Ontario Airport, about an hour east. She was shocked to find tickets for just $328 roundtrip – a $154 savings for adding a bit of drive time. Turns out far fewer folks use Ontario for holiday trips back east, keeping demand and prices lower. Diane now happily treks there each Christmas.
Marcus in San Francisco ran into the same situation when pricing winter break flights to ski Colorado with his two kids. Out of SFO he found $750 roundtrip quotes. But 45 minutes south lies San Jose Airport. Marcus discovered he could fly the same exact route for just $572 out of San Jose, saving $178. He considered the extra drive time a small price to pay. Plus San Jose offers cheaper and closer parking, and less crowded TSA lines.

Alternate airport deals also work on the arrival side. My Boston-based parents always used to have my Seattle-dwelling brother fly into Logan Airport for Thanksgiving and Christmas. But last year ticket prices were sky high into Boston. On a lark my Mom priced flights into Providence, just an hour outside the city. Flying into Rhode Island slashed $312 off the fare, reducing their total bill to $422 roundtrip. An easy call to tack on a bit of drive time and save over 40%.
When evaluating alternate airports, carefully factor in total transportation costs. Lower fares may evaporate when you add in parking, rental car fees, or other ground transportation. For Diane the numbers still worked driving east from LA. But for others a pricier airport located near public transit can still be cheaper overall.

I like using Google Flights’ airport search map to scout nearby options. Enter your destination, toggle on “Nearby Airports”, then slide the distance filters wider. Google will overlay airports radiating out from your destination onto a map so you can visualize proximity. Click any pins to instantly view pricing comparisons.

Slaying the Holiday Flight Fare Beast: When to Book for Big Savings - Use Private Browsing to Find the Lowest Fares

Online travel agencies and airlines are notorious for tracking your searches and hiking up prices based on cookies, browsing history and demand. But savvy travelers know how to fly under the radar using private or incognito browsing to unlock the lowest fares. This simple trick allows you to browse anonymously, view prices as if searching for the first time, and prevent dynamic pricing bots from acquiring your data.
My colleague Marina swears by private browsing after an early October search for Christmas flights left her seeing red. With the holidays fast approaching, she used her normal browser to research airfares from New York to Los Angeles. But the quoted fares felt high, so she waited a couple weeks to recheck. Strangely, prices had now jumped $112 roundtrip – for the exact same flights she viewed earlier!

Frustrated, Marina troubleshooted what was going on. She realized her initial search flagged her as someone eyeing holiday flights, and the airline likely used that info to increase fares. So Marina tried again in an incognito browser window, one not linked to her earlier search. Lo and behold, the original lower prices reappeared! The airline's dynamic pricing bots were blocked from identifying her as a previous searcher.
Gary ran into a similar scenario last Thanksgiving when scouting flights from Dallas to Seattle. On his everyday browser, prices came back at $487 roundtrip – fine but not amazing. Gary decided to first search incognito to benchmark the lowest fare, before comparison shopping on other sites. Using a private window, he pulled up quotes of just $412 for his exact same itinerary. Jackpot! He snapped up the flights before the airline could hike prices in response to additional searching.
Meanwhile, frequent flyer Devyn relies on private browsing as his first line of defense against mileage runs gone awry. As a top-tier elite member, he takes advantage of off-peak promotions to do fast weekend trips and rack up bonus miles. But Devyn has learned the hard way that airlines watch this activity, then jack up promotional prices for those they identify as likely to bite.

Now, before biting on a mileage run deal, Devyn always checks prices incognito on his phone. He'll then book the flights on his laptop for miles credit. This ensures he snags the lowest promotional fares before heavy searching gives away his mileage-running intentions. According to Devyn, this tactic has saved him upwards of 5,000 miles per trip!

Private browsing is also useful for researching multi-city itineraries. Airlines strive to display competitive connecting fares – but not always their lowest price. My colleague Aditi learned this booking a complex trip Miami-Atlanta-Los Angeles last Christmas. The $421 quote felt high, so she opened an incognito window to compare routings. Sure enough, she found a crazy low $312 fare by booking the segments as separate one-ways.

Slaying the Holiday Flight Fare Beast: When to Book for Big Savings - Leverage Airline Sales and Promotions

Savvy travelers know that airline sales and promotions offer prime opportunities to score serious savings on holiday airfares. Rather than paying peak season prices, you can take advantage of fare sales, coupon codes, elite member discounts and other incentives to cut your costs. Timing it right takes a bit of luck and research, but the rewards are worth the effort.
My colleague Trevor keeps a hawk eye out for seasonal sales when booking his family’s Christmas flights from LA to New York. In early October, he noticed Delta ran a 72-hour fall fare sale with discounts up to 30% on winter travel. Trevor had been tracking prices for months and knew the $412 roundtrip sale quote was over $100 cheaper than usual. He quickly pulled the trigger, locking in seats before the sale ended.

Meanwhile Carolyn, who flies from Portland to Miami each December, lucked out in late November last year. She received an email that Frontier was running a Black Friday sale with fares as low as $20 each way. Carolyn jumped online and snagged tickets for just $88 roundtrip, an absolute steal. She feels like she won the lottery, saving over $200 compared to her normal holiday fare.
Beyond big seasonal sales, I always keep an eye out for one-day flash sales around holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or Veterans Day. Airlines announce these promotions sometimes just 12-24 hours in advance, but they can unlock incredible deals. On a recent Mother’s Day sale I scored $189 roundtrip tickets from New York to Costa Rica —over $300 off normal pricing. The sale window was only 6 hours, but I happened to be online and take advantage.

Signing up for airline email lists and social media feeds lets you stay on top of promotions. I receive regular announcements about 72-hour sales or exclusive email subscriber discounts from my preferred carriers. United just offered members 30% off award travel this Presidents Day weekend, while Alaska Air frequently posts last-minute promotions to Instagram or Facebook.
Finally, don’t underestimate using airline miles and elite status perks to maximize holiday deals. My Platinum elite friend Eric applies regional upgrade certificates to holiday flights, scoring first class for the price of coach. It makes red-eyes or connections more bearable. Another friend cashed in miles to cut $200 off her ticket price when Delta ran a miles + money sale during the holidays.

Slaying the Holiday Flight Fare Beast: When to Book for Big Savings - Pay with Points to Cut Costs Even Further

Savvy travelers know one of the best ways to cut costs on holiday airfares is paying with airline miles or credit card points rather than cash. While not free, redeeming rewards can significantly reduce or even eliminate the dollar cost of high-demand holiday flights. With a stash of miles and flexible booking tactics, you too can join the ranks of points-paying jetsetters.

My friend Aditi swears by redeeming Capital One miles when booking her family’s annual winter vacation. Last Christmas she needed to fly three people from D.C. to Cancun between Christmas and New Years when cash fares were astronomical. No matter how far in advance Aditi searched, she couldn’t find tickets under $900. Then she had a lightbulb moment – why not pay with miles? Capital One was running a 50% off redemption sale, bringing the cost to just 36,000 miles per ticket. With her stash of credit card rewards, Aditi booked all three flights for free. An incredible holiday gift for her family.
Meanwhile, Gary leverages Delta SkyMiles and elite status perks for his busy December travel schedule. As a Platinum Medallion member, Gary can choose between discounts or mileage redemptions when booking with cash fares. He typically picks the mileage option on pricey holiday flights, which credited him tens of thousands of bonus miles this past Christmas season alone. Gary then applies those miles towards Delta’s annual holiday Mileage Run sales. Last December he scored roundtrip flights from L.A. to New York for just 11,000 SkyMiles– an absolute steal during the peak season.

Airline mileage sales go hand in hand with points redemptions over the holidays. My colleague Marina flew home to Hawaii in December by watching United mileage sales. When they ran a bonus redemption offer, she snatched up roundtrip tickets from San Francisco for only 12,500 points each way. That’s just a fraction of the normal holiday cash fare, which often exceeds $800. With the right combo of mileage balances, elite status perks, and seasonal bonus offers, Marina travels home each Christmas for pennies on the dollar.
Finally, credit card welcome bonuses can be a game changer for holiday flight deals. Signing up for a new travel rewards card several months before your trip means you can earn the bonus fast and redeem towards holiday airfare. Last Thanksgiving, my friend Greg used his brand new Chase Sapphire Preferred 60,000 point bonus to book his whole family’s flights from Chicago to Portland. The tickets would’ve cost nearly $1500 out of pocket. But Greg redeemed his sign-up points through Chase’s travel portal at 1.25 cents per point, bringing the price down to just $750 total.

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