Book early, stay flexible to get best fare prices for holiday travel

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Not many people think about booking their flights for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays six months in advance, but jumping in early is the way to snag the lowest fare, according to a new study.

The California-based airfare comparison site CheapAir.com analyzed some 365 million airfares over a seven-month period for the most recent holiday travel season and found that, on average, June 2 turned out to be the low point for holiday ticket prices.

"The biggest thing we learned was it's best to start thinking about booking your holiday flights way before most people start thinking about it," said CheapAir.com CEO Jeff Klee.

The analysis showed that from July through early November, ticket prices increased, but bounced around in a fairly narrow range. After Nov. 7, fares experienced a steep, relentless climb. CheapAir.com reviewed the period between May 17 and Dec. 20. Overall, Dec. 20 was the most expensive day to book a ticket, followed by Dec. 19, meaning that waiting until the last minute was the worst strategy.

"Not surprisingly, there was no great fire sale just before the holidays," CheapAir.com said in the analysis. "Empty seats that some hoped the airlines would be practically giving away at the last minute never materialized."

Another big reason to book early is that the best flight times and the lowest-priced seats are the first to fill up, Mr. Klee said.

"When booking toward the last minute, not only is the lowest fare higher, it's often only available on one terrible flight with a four-hour layover in Cleveland," he said. "So the significance of waiting is more pronounced."

Another way to save big on holiday flights is to be flexible by avoiding the most popular travel days such as the Wednesday before and the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Moving travel times by even a day often saved $100 or more per ticket, Mr. Klee said. "In extreme cases, there was a $200 difference."

As seasoned fliers can attest, no matter when tickets are purchased, the Thanksgiving/Christmas period generally is the most expensive time to fly.

On average, holiday travelers paid 50 percent more for their seats than at other times of the year, CheapAir.com found. That meant a $300 ticket during less hectic times cost $450 during the holidays.

The premium was lower for those who booked earlier and for those who traveled to less popular destinations. For example, most Florida cities were around 60 percent more expensive, while the premium for cities such as Pittsburgh, Columbus and San Antonio were in the 30 percent to 35 percent range.

The most popular holiday destination was Orlando, followed by New York, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami and Los Angeles, CheapAir.com said.

The five least popular sites (based on the difference between the number of people leaving vs. the number of people arriving) were St. Louis, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio.

The roughly six-month lead time for getting the rock-bottom rate for holiday travel was much further out than the sweet spot for flights during other times of the year, Mr. Klee said.

CheapAir.com is soon to release a larger analysis that shows overall, the optimum time to book a domestic flight last year was 54 days, or roughly eight weeks, in advance, he said.

Even though the airfare comparision site studied fares retrospectively, the data can help people get better deals on future flights, Mr. Klee said.

"The airlines have reduced capacity, there are fewer airlines now, and the load factors have increased. Those things working together make it best to book a little earlier each year and we expect that trend to continue."

Patricia Sabatini: psabatini@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3066.


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