How Far In Advance Should You Book Holiday Flights?

Unless you stumble upon a particularly good deal, you probably wind up asking yourself this every year. Should you book in May for Thanksgiving? Should you wait until the last minute?

I’ve always struggled with these decisions, typically having a gut feel for when I should start looking. This year however, with flights to some of my possible destinations already coming in at $600, I wasn’t sure. Would there be a sale closer in? Or would the prices just get worse??

Finding the “sweet spot”

I did a little  research to see what others, hopefully better informed, were saying and found an article on CheapAir.com looking at the average price of flights last year which is definitely worth a quick read. Turns out, 7 weeks out is roughly the lowest price for domestic flights. But for Thanksgiving it was 96 days, roughly 14 weeks out. Oops.

Cheap Air average-airfare-2012 graph

Risk vs Reward?

Another factor I had to take into consideration is how much the fares were likely to drop if there was a sale. Some destinations are more likely to go on sale and for a dramatic savings. Others stay pretty much the same.

One of my destinations on the West Coast frequently prices out at $350, so it was possible I could save $200+ by gambling on a sale whereas tickets to see relatives in Florida are usually at $400 regardless of holidays. If I choose the west coast waiting a few weeks might net some big savings, if I’m thinking Florida the prices probably won’t drop significantly but could go up by alot.

Hedging Your Bets

If you’re both risk adverse and hate the idea that someone else might a better deal by waiting, consider booking through a site like CheapAir.com or Orbitz which offer “price protection.”

CheapAir.com offers Price Drop Payback which offers you a travel voucher (for use on their site) of up to $100 if the price of your exact itinerary drops at any point after you buy it. The trick is apparently you have to check frequently using the link in your account in order to claim it. The good news is, apparently any drop in price qualifies for the $100 voucher, though you can only claim the voucher once per trip.

Orbitz offers you Price Assurance — if another person books your exact itinerary on Orbitz for less, you’ll get Orbucks (I hate that name) to use towards future travel for 110% of the price difference, up to $250. So you have to hope that if the price drops someone else picks your exact dates and times (which is unlikely) but on the other hand, unlike Cheap Air, you don’t have to constantly check on your reservation.

Both have their benefits and their quirks, so its up to you which, if either, will help with price anxiety.

And of course I always have to fight the urge to wait for a last minute sale — forever encouraged by the fact one year, almost a decade ago, I had planned to make the long drive to see family for Christmas but found a ticket two days before I was leaving for only $150 with perfect times and dates. It was a fluke, but hope springs eternal…

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discuss this post

  • Elaine

    Thanks for the link to the Cheapair article. I love data! Good reminder that I really should nail down my after Xmas travel plans!

  • I usually book as early as I can. I try not to game the system. I would feel worse waiting too long and watching prices rise vs booking too early and missing out on savings.

  • Southwest has no change fees. For those who can afford to float the money, buying a Southwest ticket for a known date+destination trip fairly early allows you to establish a price ceiling… you can always just travel on those tickets if nothing better comes up. Then keep an eye out for sales on Southwest — if the price drops, just re-price your existing tickets and the fare drop difference is available as Ticketless Travel Funds that can be used by the same person for up to one year from original purchase. Or if another airline offers a better price that you think will be the best price you’ll likely see for your travel dates, buy the ticket on the other airline and cancel your Southwest ticket (the entire amount becomes Ticketless Travel Funds). Or combine the Southwest strategy with your suggestion of the CheapAir strategy or Orbitz strategy.

    • Keri Anderson

      Oooh, I always forget about Southwest since I never fly them. Thank you for the great tip!!

 
 

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