Published in: Credit Cards | Oct. 20, 2019

You Won't Believe When You Should Book Your Holiday Travel

By:  Lyle Daly

We are committed to full transparency as part of our mission to make the world smarter, happier, & richer. You should know that offers on The Ascent may be from our partners - it's how we make money. That transparency to you is core to our editorial integrity, which isn’t influenced by compensation.


When it comes to holiday travel, the early bird doesn't always get the lowest prices.

The conventional wisdom on holiday travel is that the earlier you book it, the better. If you wait too long, prices could rise as less space becomes available, and you'll be competing with everyone else for seats, trying to book with only weeks to spare.

It sounds logical, but this is one situation where conventional wisdom is off the mark. Every year, Expedia analyzes holiday travel bookings and predicts when consumers can get the lowest prices on holiday airfares. And it turns out that you could pay much more if you book your holiday travel too early.

Christmas trees in airport with traveling family in background.

Image source: Getty Images

Based on Expedia's 2019 holiday airfare report, here's when you should book your tickets for Thanksgiving and Christmas travel this year, plus the travel dates when you can save the most.

Thanksgiving

Travelers get the lowest average prices on Thanksgiving travel when they book between two weeks and a month in advance, with the optimal time to book being between October 29 and November 13. On average, you can save more than 5% by booking in this window.

For Thanksgiving, it's just as costly to book too early as it is to book last minute. Bookings made either less than a week or 91 days or more before departure cost an average of 20% more.

Another key factor in how much you pay is your departure date. If you don't mind traveling on Thanksgiving Day, it's a great way to save money. You'll also avoid the chaos of traveling in the days leading up to the holiday. Next to traveling on Thanksgiving, the most economical departure days are Monday and Tuesday of that week.

The most expensive day to fly is the Saturday before Thanksgiving, which costs about $100 more than traveling on the holiday itself. And as you probably know, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest departure date.

Christmas

Christmas is similar to Thanksgiving in that it's smart to book between two weeks and one month ahead of the holiday, because this saves travelers an average of about 15%. Set your calendar for November 23 to December 9, and you'll have a good chance of scoring a reasonable airfare price.

Although it may be nerve-wracking to book last minute, you won't necessarily pay much more. Those who waited until less than a week before departure to book only paid 2% higher prices on average. But airfare costs were 15% higher for travelers who book 91 days or more in advance.

The ideal departure dates cost-wise are Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and you probably won't deal with any crowds at the airport. But considering that most travelers have limited vacation time, waiting that long to travel often isn't an option.

December 23 is also an economical departure date. Or, if you are able to get an early start, consider leaving the week before Christmas. The worst date for a flight is the Saturday before Christmas, which will be December 21 this year. Not only is it the most expensive option, but it's also among the busiest travel dates of the year.

What if you're booking with travel rewards?

If you're planning to book travel with credit card points, then you should get your holiday flight booked as soon as you're sure about your travel dates.

With award tickets, it's rare to see price fluctuations like you do with cash tickets. How it usually works is the airline releases a limited number of award tickets, often at different pricing tiers. For example, a saver award ticket could cost 20,000 miles and a standard award ticket could cost 40,000 miles, both for the same type of seat.

As soon as all the saver tickets on a flight are booked, your only option would be a standard ticket that costs more miles. And after those standard tickets are gone, you can't book an award ticket on that flight anymore.

For that reason, consumers who plan to book airfare with travel rewards will often shop for their holiday flights six months or more in advance. You may still find award tickets later, but it becomes more difficult the longer you wait.

Getting the best deal on your holiday travel

Let's sum up how you can keep those holiday travel costs down.

For the two big end-of-the-year holidays, airfare prices tend to be at their lowest around two weeks to one month in advance. If you can travel on the holiday itself, you'll pay less, and you won't have to deal with bumper-to-bumper traffic or crowded airports.

If traveling on the holiday itself is out of the question, then you should aim for early in the week. Avoid the Saturday before the holiday at all costs.

And if you're paying with travel points from your credit cards, all that advice about when to book goes out the window. Get your award tickets as early as possible, because prices likely won't drop and when those tickets are gone, they're gone.

Our #1 cash back pick has a surprise bonus

This may be the perfect cash back card! That's because it packs in $1,148 of value. Cardholders can earn up to 5% cash back, double rewards in the first year, and avoid interest well into 2020. With such a deep bench of perks you'll wonder how this card packs in a $0 annual fee. Best yet, you can apply and get a decision in two minutes. Learn more with our in-depth review.

Find the right card for you

Travel