It’s October, and that means people are planning their Christmas/New Year’s getaways. Most of my friends and family travel over Christmas, and they always seem to wait until the last minute to book and still expect to find cheap flights. The bad news is that the airlines are once again expecting to have full planes over the holidays. The good news is that there’s still plenty of time to find great fares, and I’m here to help. Here are 10 ways to find cheap Christmas flights.
1. Be flexible
Without a doubt, the key to finding cheap Christmas flights is to be flexible (or any day, for that matter). If you can’t be flexible, then you aren’t going to get a deal so you can stop reading right now. It’s not that difficult to figure out that the most expensive time to fly is when everyone else is, too. For example, Christmas this year is on Wednesday, December 25 and I bet you want to leave the Friday (December 20) or Saturday (December 21) and return midday on Sunday, December 29 or January 5. Am I right?
Well, that’s not going to happen and if you ran an airline, you wouldn’t discount fares that day either, now would you? To prove my point, I just ran a flexible search on Google Flights (above) for round-trip non-stop flights from New York to Miami for the holidays. You can see that leaving on Saturday and returning on Sunday are the most expensive days to fly. The roundtrip will cost $497 and that’s for a 10:50pm flight on Frontier which no one wants to take. To leave earlier in the day will cost a lot more. (FYI When I priced these same flights out in early September it was $624).
Solution: Travel a few days earlier on the outbound and return a day later and the price will drop by more than 50%. If you want to save even more money, push the dates even more.
You can also fly on Christmas Eve or early Christmas Day and return early on New Year’s Eve or early on New Years Day.
According to Expedia: The cheapest time to buy for Christmas is between November 23 – December 9. Booking during this window saved travelers around 15 percent, so aim to book at least two weeks to a month in advance of travel. While last-minute bookers payed around 2% more than average, early birds who booked 91+ days out paid around 15% more than the average holiday traveler.
AAA found that 61 to 90 days prior to the holiday (between Sept. 26 and Oct. 25) is the sweet spot for Christmas flight bookings, with prices lower on average ($551) than more advanced bookings. However, most travelers book between 28 and 60 days before Christmas — between Oct. 26 and Nov. 27 — and still get a relatively good price ($561 on average).
2. Consider the time of day
Since everyone wants to leave after work or when school gets out, don’t enter in a specific time when searching for a flight. Generally, the most expensive times to fly are peak business travel hours (8am to 10am and 5pm to 7pm). Cheaper seats tend to depart early in the morning (5am to 7am), midday (noon) or late in the evening (after 8pm).
Pro Tip: By leaving early in the morning, you have the best chance of not getting delayed.
3. Alternate airports
Another money-saving trick is to not only be flexible with dates and times, but also with airports, too. For example, rather than flying into (or out of) Miami when going to South Florida, check out Fort Lauderdale Airport (FLL), which is 25 miles north and usually much cheaper.
FYI: Almost all major U.S. cities have alternate airports and I created this page show you the actual driving miles.
4. Stay away from the low-cost carriers and Basic Economy fares
When you do a flight search, don’t just grab the cheapest fare you see, especially from a low-cost carrier (LCC) because it could end up costing you much more than you think. Allegiant, Spirit, Frontier and Norwegian are just a few that are notorious for offering ridiculously low fares and then hitting you up for everything from assigned seats, checked baggage and even carry-on luggage. The worst part is that now the legacy airlines like American, Delta and United don’t want to lose out so they’re offering the same kind of fares. So make sure you read the fine print on your fare before buying—even from the mainline carriers.
5. Choose Southwest Airlines if you’re checking bags
Southwest was the original low-cost carrier so it’s ironic that they’re the only one that doesn’t charge for checked bags. They offer the first and second checked bag for free, which most airlines would charge an extra $120 for on a roundtrip ticket. If you’re planning on checking bags and don’t have elite status or an airline branded credit card where one of the perks is free baggage, then check to see if Southwest Airlines is flying your desired route. Remember: Their fares don’t show up in any search engine except their own so you need to log on to Southwest.com.
6. Sign up for fare alerts
If you don’t want to constantly have to check airfares manually (as I like to do for some insane reason), then sign up for fare alerts. Many sites offer this free service including Google, Kayak and Yapta. See Google screenshot above.
7. Hold your airfares for free for 24 hours
Many consumers in the US don’t realize that the Department of Transportation (DOT) has stated that all US and foreign carriers have to allow consumers the ability “to hold a reservation at the quoted fare for 24 hours without payment or allow a reservation to be cancelled within 24 hours without penalty.” See here for the DOT’s full rule (PDF). However, if you’re booking a ticket with fewer than seven days before you fly, this rule doesn’t apply.
Note: American Airlines is the only airline that I’m aware of that allows consumers to hold a reservation without a credit card for 24 hours, making it much easier to cancel. However, since American offers the hold option, if you make a reservation with them, you can’t cancel without a fee.
8. Use frequent flier miles or credit card points
It’s almost impossible to use your airline frequent flier miles during the holidays unless you are flexible with dates or are willing to use double or triple the usual amount. If you don’t want to cut your trip short, then consider using credit card points.
9. Consult a travel agent
As you can see, bargain hunting can be a time-consuming process but it can pay off big time, especially if you are traveling with multiple people. If you don’t want to spend the time and energy doing all the legwork, then call a travel agent and pay their fee, which can be $25 or more. A good agent will find you the same deals as you can find online and sometimes even better deals if they are clever with the ticketing (usually for international flights). To give you an example, once I was flying from London to Bangkok and everything I was finding online was over $1,000. I called my travel agent and he found a flight on Etihad through Abu Dhabi for $550. It was well worth the $25 fee.
10. Hidden city trick
The airlines do not like the hidden city trick even though you are beating them at their own game. With that said it’s against airline policy so you didn’t learn it from me! Here’s how it works: Once I needed to get from L.A. to Cleveland and a last minute one-way ticket was a whopping $600. I took my own advice and searched alternate airports and found a ticket to Buffalo (BUF) for only $230. I noticed that the flight first was stopping in Cleveland and then connecting to Buffalo. What’s crazy is that the first flight was the exact same $600 flight I originally found.
I know it makes no sense since Buffalo is farther from Cleveland and you have to take two flights instead of one but that’s the airlines for you. If I’d wanted to break airline policy, I could have just gotten off in Cleveland and let my connecting ticket to BUF go to waste. If I had done that, I would have bought a one-way ticket, made sure not to check bags, got on the plane early so I didn’t have to gate check a bag or put my mileage account number since the airlines can take away all of your miles. Consult Skiplagged.com since they show you the hidden cities.
I hope this guide helps you find cheap flights and more importantly, allows you to spend the holidays with the ones you love.
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