The New York Times
If you’re looking to save some money this holiday season, data researchers have gotten pretty good at determining the best times to book air travel — as well as when to fly. Yet there is not one rule of thumb to follow when trying to make cost-effective holiday travel plans.
For example, booking your air travel for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays too early can be really expensive, but waiting too long can be just as financially painful. Confused yet?
Not to worry. The following are answers to the questions you should be asking yourself as you look to finalize your holiday travels.
How Long Can I Wait Before Prices Rise Significantly?
For Thanksgiving travel, you’re in friendly booking territory during the month of October. But make sure you have Halloween circled on your calendar if you want to lock in the lowest fares. You’ll start to see prices climb slowly beginning in November, and then more so as the month progresses.
“Prices will really begin spiking by $10 per day during the final two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving,” Patrick Surry, the chief data scientist for Hopper said.
If you’re traveling around the Christmas holiday season, the window for the lowest airfare has already closed (the first week of October). But you’ll want to book before you hit about 10 days out from Christmas Day, Mr. Surry said.
“Based on Hopper’s historical data, the best time to book Christmas flights is about 83 days before departure, which is the first week of October. Prices begin rising by about $4 per day around Thanksgiving, and then by about $7 per day in the final two weeks,” Mr. Surry said.
Does It Matter Which Day I Book?
There are several different theories about which day of the week, and time of day, has the most affordable fares. For example, Priceline.com data shows that the cheapest day of the week to purchase is Friday, despite the majority of tickets being purchased on a Tuesday.
But there might not be a whole lot to gain from focusing on the day of the week.
“Pricing is extremely nuanced,” Mr. Surry said. “Everyone wants a golden rule about when to buy, but it really depends on your route, dates and demand.”
Does It Matter Which Day I Fly?
Yes, this one you’ll want to think about carefully, and also ask yourself: How flexible is my holiday travel?
“If you have flexibility, in general it will pay to extend your trip,” Mr. Surry said.
Regarding Thanksgiving, the most expensive day to depart is the Wednesday before, which should not come as a surprise as it’s also one of the busiest travel days of the year. But if you are able to leave on the Monday or the Thursday of that week you can save around $50 on the first leg of your trip. The same goes for your return day. The busiest and most expensive day to come back is Sunday. But you can save around $160 by returning on Wednesday, Nov. 29, instead, Mr. Surry said.
For Christmas this year, the cheapest days to depart are Saturday, Dec. 16, or Tuesday, Dec. 19, which can save you about $110 compared to traveling on the busiest day, which is Friday, Dec. 22. The most popular return day is New Year’s Day, and returning on Thursday, Jan. 4, instead could save you around $100, according to Hopper’s data.
Does It Matter Where I’m Going?
Yes, data for domestic flights show that some destination cities are more expensive to travel to than others, which can be tied to demand.
Priceline.com found that the most popular travel route for both Thanksgiving and Christmas is New York City to Florida (Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando). For Christmas travel, these destination cities are also among the ones with the highest “holiday premium,” as Hopper terms it, meaning the greatest increase in price compared to non-holiday travel.
No matter where you are traveling from for the Christmas holiday, you can expect to pay up to 82 percent more for a fare to Miami ($383 instead of $211), according to Hopper. Fort Lauderdale and Orlando see spikes of over 60 percent.
For Thanksgiving, you can expect to spend 40 percent more than usual for trips to Denver and Boston.
What Tools Are Out There to Help Me Save Money?
There are ways to help protect yourself from the fluctuating holiday travel marketplace.
Consider setting up price-change email or mobile alerts from Hopper, Skyscanner, Google Flights or another airfare tracker.
Should you have flexibility on where to go, consider using Hopper’s new Flex Watch tool, which will alert you to flight deals based on your own preferences and date flexibility.
Follow Justin Sablich on Twitter: @JustinSablich