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The Best Time to Book Holiday Flights

By Ramsey Qubein

December 2, 2022

With the holidays upon us, procrastinators may still be looking to book their holiday flights. Some travelers may have already made their reservations while others are holding out for a deal. But, who among them is right? It turns out, everyone, albeit for different reasons.

Depending on your patience level, budget constraints and destination, there are ways to maximize the savings if you are diligent enough.

Here are some important things to consider when thinking about the best time to book holiday flights, and why booking early may not turn out to be such a bad idea after all.


Airlines Honor Price Drops

Almost all airlines will provide a difference in the fare (perhaps in the form of a travel credit) if the price drops on the exact same flight and fare bucket (the type of ticket you book). If you notice a lower price on the same type of ticket (that’s the kicker, you’ll want to look at the fare code for your ticket), you can get a difference in the fare. 

In addition, most airlines have nixed change fees, so it’s possible to call an airline to change a ticket if you find a lower price, even on a different type of ticket or date of travel. You’ll probably receive a credit in exchange to use another time, perhaps as a head start for next year’s holidays.

Set a reminder for yourself to keep checking the price of flights on a weekly basis in case anything changes. Or sign up for one of the many website services, like Skyscanner, that will alert you in the event of a price drop. 


Stay Alert For Fare Deals (or pricing mistakes)

Airlines are keen on generating buzz with special discounts or filling empty planes when it looks like a flight won’t be as busy as planned. Websites like Airfarewatchdog and Scott’s Cheap Flights will let you know about crazy-good deals around the country. You can also set price alerts for your preferred airport so that you can keep an eye on good flight deals and receive a notification when they are live. These same alerts can let you know if an airline puts a flight on sale (perhaps by mistake at a jaw-dropping low price) so that you can snap it up before it gets corrected. This is more common than it may seem.

Be sure to use interactive maps, like the one on Google Flights, too. These can showcase prices at nearby airports that you may not have considered or let you know if changing your dates by one day earlier or later can save you additional cash. For example, instead of flying into Charlotte, try Greensboro/High Point, N.C. (just over an hour away) to find extra savings. 

Many people also have success flying into one airport and departing from another nearby. You can do this easily in the form of buying two one-way tickets. This is a creative way to maximize savings. Don’t assume that a roundtrip flight is always going to be cheaper. Sometimes, buying two one-way tickets is a better option.

black family traveling

Check Fares On An Individual, Per-Person Basis

Airlines segment each flight into different fare buckets. Each of these aligns to a different price with individual travel restrictions. That’s why on the same flight, everyone may be paying a different price since they booked a different airfare product (each with its own restrictions). For example, if you are a family of four, begin your search by looking for one ticket. Then do a search for two tickets, then three and so on. You may discover that you can save money by purchasing tickets separately rather than all at once since there may only be a few seats left in one bucket before it moves on to a more expensive bucket. If it does the latter, it will probably price all four tickets into the higher bucket. That’s why booking tickets in two groups can save quite a bit of cash.

For example, you may be charged $500 per person when buying four tickets at once. But, sometimes if you break it up into two purchases of two tickets each, you can get two tickets at a lower price and then the second set of two tickets at $500 (essentially saving money on the first two tickets).


Travel On “Off” Days

If you really want to save cash, consider traveling on “off” days when fewer people will be looking to fly. For example, flying on Christmas Day or the morning of New Year’s Day could reveal potential savings. While not exactly convenient for everyone, the tradeoff could come in the form of more cash in your pocket that you could use to spend on holiday presents. 

Speaking of holiday presents, don’t forget to save the receipts from anything you buy and scan them using the Fetch app. For every receipt you scan, you’ll be earning valuable rewards in the form of gift cards to your favorite retailers. Who doesn’t like to double dip on savings?


Consider Vacation Packages

Buying your trip as part of a bundled package with airfare, car rental or hotel together can save you, well, a bundle. Many websites offer this type of travel package from the traditional online travel agencies (OTA) like Orbitz to airline-backed agencies like American Airlines Vacations and United Vacations. We recommend booking an airline-associated website since they are more likely to assist quickly in the event of a disruption. Booking with an OTA like Orbitz requires you to contact them directly; adding a middle man to the process injects a lot of wasted time and effort (not to mention needless delay if you’re already standing at the gate and an airline tells you to call the travel agency you used).

Still, the savings from these bundles can be worth it if you need a hotel or rental car at the destination. Often, you’ll find that the total cost is cheaper than booking things separately, and you would also earn frequent flyer miles for your flights. Since these prices offer negotiated discounts, they are also less likely to be subjected to advance-purchase rules so can be particularly helpful if booking at the last minute.


Using Airline Frequent Flyer Miles

If you are using miles for holiday travel, then you’ll want to start early. Airlines release their schedules generally around 330 days in advance. This means if you want to snag those award seats quickly, start early and keep checking back. Airlines only release a certain amount of inventory for their lowest price frequent flyer redemptions. 

If you want to avoid overpaying in miles (we’re looking at you Delta!), then start early and don’t give up. The price in miles can fluctuate. Since most airlines have removed change fees, if you find a lower price, you can call the airline to get a refund in the difference of miles (as long as you didn’t book the most restrictive basic economy ticket; for example, American Airlines calls these “web special” awards with no changes allowed).


When Airfares Really Start To Rise

Once you get within the 21-day booking window, the airfare can start to change (usually going up during a high demand period). This is because as flights fill up closer to departure, the availability of lower fares can dwindle. If you’re on the cusp of booking, do so before that set window of time begins. Additional price hikes may happen at 14 and 7 days before departure, too. While it may be possible to snag a last-minute travel bargain, these are less likely during the holidays when people become less price-sensitive and have guaranteed reasons for travel.

A child in the back of a car

Choose To Drive Instead

If, in the end, your gamble to wait on buying cheap airfare did not pay off and you choose to drive instead, put those gas gift cards you earned from Fetch to work. The Fetch app allows users to scan receipts from their favorite retailers to earn cash back in the form of gift cards. This can include popular restaurants, retail stores and fuel cards. While it may take a bit longer to reach your destination, at least you can pack more and save some extra cash by redeeming the gas gift cards you earned from Fetch. Even better, you won’t have to pay airline’s outrageous checked bag fees either.

Topics: Gift Cards, holiday travel, Holidays


Ramsey Qubein

Ramsey Qubein is a freelance travel journalist covering hotels, cruises, airlines, and loyalty programs from around the globe. He's a contributor to NerdWallet, Forbes, Fortune and more.