Thanksgiving is over and procrastinators across the country are slowly starting to try and figure out how they can find cheap Christmas flights. The bad news is that the airlines are expecting to have full planes over the holidays and most of the cheap fares for peak days and times are already gone. The good news is that I’m here to help you find the most economical way for you to see your family, for them to come see you or for you to get out of Dodge. 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 Sunday, December 25 and I bet you want to leave the Friday (December 23) or Saturday (December 24) and return on the Sunday (January 1) or early morning on the Monday (January 2) after. 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 (below) for roundtrip non-stop flights from New York’s LGA to Miami for a seven-night stay. You can see that leaving on Saturday and returning on Sunday are the most expensive days to fly. The round-trip will cost $691 and that’s for a 1pm flight returning on a 6am flight, which no one wants to take. To leave later in the day will cost a lot more.
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).
Good to know: 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
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, Norwegian and WOW 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 Delta and American don’t want to lose out so they’re going to offer 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 Airfarewatchdog.com, Kayak and FareCompare.com.
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 getting a credit card like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®. That’s because you can redeem your miles for travel statement credits starting at 10,000 miles for $100 toward all or a portion of your travel purchase of $100 or more made within the past 120 days. On top of that, for a limited time, you will earn over $500 in travel, 2x points per $1 spent, and a 5% rebate on all point redemptions. Learn more about it here.
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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Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.