Winter Vacation Travel Plans: Jump Now or Roll the Dice?

(CNN) — High prices, canceled flights, booked accommodations and rental cars. The summer of travel chaos still feels warm and fresh somehow.

But it’s time to look ahead, because there’s another critical period looming in less than two months: the 2022 winter holiday season.

So put away your T-shirts, pull out your sweaters and get ready for winter vacation. Here’s what you need to know:

When should I buy tickets for winter vacation flights?

Making the decision about when to buy airline tickets seems more complicated than ever. Prices change daily, if not hourly. The personnel and capacity ramifications of the pandemic are still being felt.

But October is probably the best window of opportunity. In other words, NOW.

“Generally…travellers tend to start planning their vacation trips too late, and they’re missing out on some of the best prices available,” said Hayley Berg, chief economist at Hopper, the planning app and travel booking. And she told CNN Travel she sees people waiting later than ever to seal the deal during the pandemic rebound.

“For the holidays in particular, that’s a real deal because it’s actually the best time to book your Thanksgiving and Christmas trip,” Berg said.

Hopper suggested in an email to wait until mid-October at the latest.

It’s not just a matter of price, Berg said. She also noted another risk while waiting: “Flights can be completely sold out on the dates you want to fly.”

The worst time to book? ‘The last minute’

Scott Keyes, the founder of flight deals and travel advice site Scott’s Cheap Flights, told CNN Travel that the best deals were actually last summer (remember that for 2023). But don’t be discouraged this year, he says.

“The second best time to book your flights is now, because the worst time to book them is to wait until the last minute,” Keyes said. “If you haven’t booked those flights yet and are really hoping to travel over the winter break, try to book it in the next week or two.”

Keyes thinks airfares are likely to go up, not less, as we get closer to Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Phil Dengler, co-owner of travel resource The Vacationer, uses a popular fall vacation as a guide.

“I consider Halloween the deadline to get a reasonable price on a Thanksgiving flight, but I aim to get booked before then,” Dengler said in an email interview. “After Halloween, prices will increase significantly as Thanksgiving approaches. For Christmas flights, you really should book before Thanksgiving, but the best deals are between now and Halloween.”

An Alaska Airlines flight arrives at Los Angeles International Airport on October 2. The duration of your ticket purchase may depend on many personal factors in addition to airline prices.

AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images

The AAA auto and travel club had different pricing data for Thanksgiving airfares.

Based on booking data from 2019, 2021 and 2022 so far, AAA found the lowest average fares only seven to 14 days before Thanksgiving, with the highest prices 28 to 60 days before the holiday. However, the data also showed rising prices in the last seven days before the holiday.

So should we wait? Much depends on personal circumstances such as your budget and flexibility in your flight plans, AAA told CNN Travel. If you don’t have much wiggle room, it might not be worth waiting for a chance at a lower rate.

“Airlines have fewer flights than in 2019, which means fewer options for consumers,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of travel at AAA. “With staffing shortages and capacity at its peak, you run the risk of being delayed or even missing flights, particularly if weather plays a part in the equation.”

What are the best days to fly on Thanksgiving?

Expedia has shared some information on when to travel for Thanksgiving (Thursday, November 24):

To save money, the travel agency suggested waiting until Monday (November 21) to leave instead of Saturday (November 19) and Sunday (November 20), “because the weekend is the period the most expensive way to start your Thanksgiving week trip”.

Average ticket prices for Monday are more than 30% lower than Saturday and almost 15% lower than Wednesday (23 November), he said.

When it comes to returns, Expedia said Friday, November 25 was the cheapest date. Returning on Monday (28 November) instead of Sunday (27 November) could save 5% to 10%.

Hopper also suggests flying on Thanksgiving Day if you can, offering savings of around $100 off peak prices. In addition, planes should be less crowded.

Keyes said Thanksgiving weekend comes with a bonus. “Thanksgiving is the hidden best week for international travel,” Keyes said.

Why is that?

Christmas and the New Year are celebrated around the world and therefore come with global demand, but Thanksgiving is only a holiday in the United States, he said. Domestic flights are expensive, but international flights are not.

“You find amazing deals all over Europe during Thanksgiving week.” He said when checking prices this week, he found a cheaper fare from New York to Lisbon, Portugal ($429 round-trip, than to Cedar Rapids, Iowa ($567 round-trip).

What are the best days to fly at Christmas?

Hopper had advice on when to travel for Christmas (Sunday, December 25):

For departure, he said travelers can save $120 off peak prices by departing on the Monday (December 19) or Tuesday (December 20) before Christmas. Going on Christmas Eve could save people around $100 this year, Hopper estimated. The site said to avoid flying on Thursday (December 22) or Friday (December 23) as these will be the most expensive travel days.

For returns, Tuesday (December 27) or Wednesday (December 28) after Christmas Day could save you $40 per ticket. He said to avoid returning on Monday (December 26), New Year’s Day or January 2, the most expensive return dates.

Some other expert advice

Have your ducks in a row: “Preparation is the best way to reduce stress when flying over Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Dengler said. “If possible, book an early morning nonstop flight” on a low-volume travel day. He also advised against checking a bag if possible.

Do you offer: If you travel several times a year or more and enjoy a low level of stress, Keyes suggested getting a credit card that includes “attractive perks.” This includes access to special airport lounges that take you away from the crowds and offer free food, drink and even massages.

Avoid the crowd: If you are driving, Twidale advised leaving early in the morning before rush hour or after 8 p.m. If you need a rental car, book it early to lock in the rate and pay in advance to save money. If you’re flying but driving to the airport, reserve parking spaces. She also suggested signing up for TSA pre-screening to bypass long security lines.

Hotels: Berg said if you’re heading to a major city (think New York, Chicago, etc.), you’ll likely get a better deal if you wait a few days before your arrival date to book the room. Caveats: This is for people who are not committed to a certain hotel or specific area. And for smaller towns, she said people should always book earlier because choices are limited.

Top image: The United Airlines counter at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va., on Christmas Eve 2021. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images)


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