For many, traveling during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season is a necessary evil. It’s the most wonderful time of the year (if you believe the song), but getting home for the holidays can easily be an expensive and stressful journey.
And trying to game the system can be a challenge all its own. “The average Thanksgiving flight will change price over 100 times between now and the holiday,” Patrick Surry, chief data scientist for the travel booking platform Hopper, said in a recent interview.
But here are some tips from travel experts that can help minimize the pain — both financial and logistical — of your next holiday trip.
Timing is (mostly) everything
As in years past, the general rule is the earlier you book, the better. But there are exceptions.
According to Hipmunk, another travel booking site, the best time to book airfare for the Thanksgiving holiday would have been the week of Oct. 1 and for the winter holidays, Oct. 15. Of course, one of these deadlines has passed, and the other is so close it may not be possible to finalize your plans by then.
But it’s still important to book as soon as you can, as prices will continue to rise each week the closer you get to the holiday, according to Hopper, and if you need to set yourself a deadline, make it at least two weeks in advance of departure.
“This last minute window tends to see prices spike the most dramatically, and while you may have heard of someone getting a great deal the day before Christmas, the reality is that the data show this is very, very unlikely,” Mr. Surry said.
It’s not only when you book, but when you choose to fly. Traveling on the holiday itself will always cut down on your total fare. Hipmunk found that flying on Thanksgiving Day can save you 21 percent over the peak booking price. You’ll save a similar amount by flying on Christmas Day and avoiding the previous Friday, Dec. 21, which is the most costly.
“It all comes back to basic supply and demand,” Mr. Surry said. “The airlines know that there is little outside incentive to travel on a day that you would prefer to be spending in celebration with family and friends, and as a result, we tend to see reduced prices on these days.”
When you return is crucial as well. Google’s data analysis suggests taking an extra vacation day or two so you can return a bit later than most. They saw lower than average prices with return flights on Tuesday Nov. 27 and Wed. Nov. 28.
Home for the holidays? Try a vacation instead.
Most of us feel obligated to visit family back home, but maybe you want to take a year off from discussing politics with Uncle Frank. If you just want to get away this holiday season and you have some flexibility on where you go, you’ll find some great travel deals.
This is where it pays to be a bit tech-savvy. Setting fare alerts with apps like Hopper and Hipmunk can help you keep track of price drops and discounted fares. Google also has a new tool that allows you to choose among the 25 most common holiday flight routes to see how far in advance you should book. It’s not a bad idea to get some affordable alternative holiday travel ideas.
A trip outside the country might also be a good idea for the winter holidays. Google has noticed a trend of lower prices for flights to popular international destinations like Paris, London and Cancun, with fares around 20 percent lower than average.
Richard Holden, Google’s vice president for product management, said one reason could be that the off-season for many international destinations overlaps with these winter holidays.
Weigh Airbnb and hotels
If you are going home but not staying with family, vacation rentals like Airbnb may be cheaper than hotels. Hipmunk found that those rentals can save Thanksgiving travelers 10 percent on average and 7 percent during the week of Christmas.
But if you prefer hotels and their amenities, there are ways to save there too, especially if you’re flexible on where exactly you stay. Google found that San Francisco, Boston and Washington D.C. are the three U.S. cities generally offering the best hotel deals, with average savings ranging from 40 to 50 percent.
“Hotel prices drop in many U.S. cities in the days leading up to Thanksgiving because of a significant decline in business travel and thus lower overall demand,” Mr. Holden said.
The airport matters
If you are departing from a bigger city, you probably have a few airports to choose from. You may be used to flying out of one in particular, but you may want to consider the one that’s a little further away, like a regional airport or a national one over an international one, or be ok with a return flight to your “other” airport. (As always, compare prices from alternative departure sites, to see if going a little out of your way will result in a significant savings.)
Hipmunk found that booking round trip flights with different airports can save travelers up to 14 percent on Thanksgiving weekend, and 17 percent off the week of Christmas.
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