When Should You Book Holiday Travel to Save the Most?

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Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on Living on the Cheap.

The holiday travel season is just around the corner, and this year, there’s one piece of advice everyone seems to agree on: Book early.

(But there may be advantages to waiting; more on that later.)

How early? Well, if you’re reading this now, you might want to open a new tab and start looking for flights or hotels — that’s how early, if you listen to most experts.

“Book your trip as soon as possible,” advises Carol Mueller, vice president at Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. “Because the longer you wait, the more expensive the trip will be.”

When are the travel holidays?

Man traveling during the holidays
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The holiday travel period in the United States is between the last week in November and the first week in January. It includes Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.

Generally, it’s one of the worst times of the year to travel, partly because of bad weather and partly because of high demand. Almost everyone wants to go somewhere during the holidays.

What’s the outlook for holiday travel prices?

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Overall, domestic travel prices are down compared with the last holiday period:

  • Average Thanksgiving airfares have fallen 14% from this time last year (to $268 per ticket), and Christmas airfares are down 12% (to $400 per ticket), according to Hopper.
  • Car rental rates average $42 a day during Thanksgiving, a 17% decline from last year. The daily rate at Christmas is $10 higher, about the same as last year, Hopper predicts.
  • Gas prices are steady. The Department of Energy predicts fuel prices will remain virtually unchanged, despite the turmoil in the Middle East. Nationwide, average fuel prices should stay around $3.62 per gallon.
  • Hotel rates are ticking higher, though. Prices for Thanksgiving stays are averaging $206 per night (up 9% from last year). For Christmas, the average room rate is $233 a night (up 7%), according to Hopper.

Most prices may be lower, but that’s only half of the equation, says John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group.

Airfares and rental cars may be a little more affordable — at least compared with the last holiday season — but that assumes there’s availability. And travel advisers are seeing record demand going into the 2023 holiday travel season.

“Things are tight,” says Lovell.

Where are the crowds?

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Most Americans drive to their holiday destinations, and getting accurate predictions on driving intentions is difficult. But Priceline pulled some of its airfare booking data and found holiday air travelers were all headed to the same places, more or less.

Here’s Priceline’s list of the most popular Thanksgiving destinations in the U.S., along with the average roundtrip airfare to those places.

  1. New York ($453)
  2. Atlanta ($396)
  3. Dallas ($511)
  4. Los Angeles ($419)
  5. Chicago ($478)

The list of destinations shifts around for Christmas and New Year’s, but New York is always at the top, and Atlanta is in second place on two lists.

How about internationally?

“Our review of this year’s top Thanksgiving destinations revealed that Mexico is a top choice for Americans traveling internationally — specifically Cancun, San Jose Del Cabo and Puerto Vallarta,” says Daniel Durazo, director of external communications at Allianz Travel Insurance.

Travel on these days

Woman ready for holiday travel
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If you can’t avoid the destination, try to travel on the least crowded day during that particular holiday period.

Expedia’s analysis of holiday booking data suggests that during the busy Thanksgiving holiday travel period, a flight departing on Monday, Nov. 20, is 12% cheaper than Wednesday, Nov. 22, the day before Thanksgiving.

Departing on Friday instead of Sunday will save you money, too.

Same thing goes for Christmas. Leave on Tuesday, Dec. 19, or on Christmas Eve, and you’ll save 25% versus flying on Friday, Dec. 22.

Those are slow days because most people prefer to fly later.

Other uncrowded days: Christmas eve or the holiday itself. Flights on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day are historically less busy.

A big caveat

air travel
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This week, Kayak released its latest airfare information. It suggested airfares were falling fast.

Prices for domestic travel over Thanksgiving weekend are down 13% from last year, and even more surprising, they’re down 7% in the last month. Cities like Richmond, Virginia, San Jose, California, and Baltimore have seen price drops of nearly 30% since last Thanksgiving.

So that raises the question of whether you should follow the conventional wisdom (book now) or wait a little longer for fares to drop further (highly unconventional).

If you have a flexible schedule, you might play the odds and wait. But don’t wait too long.

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