The Best Time to Book Holiday Travel—and How to Save

If you haven’t already purchased your holiday flights, read on for the best strategy.

Christmas tree consisting of 6 rows of airplanes

In the week before Christmas, airfares start to increase an average of $40 per day.

Photo by Shutterstock

While the current prices of airline tickets are down from their peak earlier this year—thanks to pent-up travel demand being released and more flights being added—they likely won’t stay that way for long. The holidays are coming and, with them, an increase in flight prices.

If you want a good deal on holiday airfare, now is the time to book.

According to a recent report from Google Flights, the average price of airline tickets tends to be at its lowest 71 days before departure. That would mean if you’re looking to travel on Christmas Eve, the best day to purchase tickets is Saturday, October 14.

That number more or less jives with Going’s (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) “goldilocks window”—the period during which cheap fares are most likely to crop up. Founder Scott Keyes has previously said that for domestic flights, the best time to book a flight is one to three months before your travel date, and for international flights, it’s two to eight months prior. However, it’s better to book earlier than later for the peak holiday season.

During the pandemic, people were able to score cheap last-minute flights, namely because fewer people were flying and business travelers weren’t buying eleventh-hour fares that drove prices up. But, according to Katy Nastro, a travel expert at Going, fliers shouldn’t count on that happening in 2023, as travel has returned to “normal.”

“The good news though is that average airfare is down 13 percent year over year and has been trending downward since May of 2022, so we don’t anticipate average prices to far exceed last year,” says Nastro. “Yet that doesn’t change the fact that the winter holidays are the busiest time of the year to travel, which can mean you might be left with extremely high prices if you book last minute.”

She added, “The closer it gets to your travel date, the more the odds of snagging a good deal decrease—especially if your dates and destination aren’t flexible, as is the case for most holiday travelers. If you haven’t already booked, do it soon.”

Still need to book your flights? Let this information guide you to nabbing a deal during the 2023 holiday season.

Tips for scoring cheap holiday season flights in 2023

Try looking at two one-way flights

Flight aggregators, like Google Flights, will only display round-trip flights from a single airline or two one-way flights from partner airlines. For example, it might suggest an itinerary where the outbound flight is on Alaska Airlines and the return is on American Airlines because they are both part of the oneworld Alliance. However, Google Flights won’t provide an itinerary that combines Delta and United because they are competitors. Try booking your trip separately on different airlines to see if you can find a cheaper overall price.

Explore alternative airports

Sometimes, going to a more distant airport is worth the savings of flying out of a closer hub.

“For example, you live outside of Philadelphia and would love to take that trip to Paris with your partner over the winter holidays, but tickets are currently out of budget,” says Nastro. “The tickets from Philly are currently well over $900 round-trip, but if you drove just an hour and a half away to Newark, your ticket cost for the same trip might be almost $200 less.”

Consider when you travel

You could save a considerable amount of money by tweaking your travel dates.

According to Hayley Berg, lead economist at the travel booking app Hopper, travelers can save the most if they fly the Monday of Thanksgiving week and return any weekday of the following week.

“With Christmas Day on a Monday this year, expect the most expensive flights to be those departing Thursday and Friday ahead of the holiday weekend. Travelers who are flexible should plan to depart midweek before the holiday or on Christmas Eve to get the lowest airfare,” says Berg.

She adds that if you plan on staying through New Year’s Eve, you should aim to return midweek after the first of the year.

If you are bound by specific dates, you might be able to get a better deal on your flights if you travel a few hours later, like on a red-eye flight that departs shortly after midnight on the day you need to be home. Nastro noted that red-eyes are typically cheaper as there’s less demand for them.

Additionally, if you’re only concerned with making it by an evening dinner time, check to see if flying in on the holiday itself offers any savings.

“A fair amount of people tend to be at their destinations by then, especially with the ability to work remotely, so you may have a better shot for a more affordable price versus [arriving] one or two days before,” Nastro says.

Don’t forget Southwest

Don’t let last year’s technology meltdown deter you from cross-checking flights on Southwest.

“The carrier’s flight prices won’t appear in your search engine, so best to double-check on their website directly to see if you can save by flying with them on a round-trip or even just one of the legs,” Nastro says. “And to ease fears, we don’t anticipate another catastrophic event [will] happen with them this year.”

Go where others aren’t

As a general rule of thumb, the more popular a destination is, the more expensive it is to get there. Choosing less popular cities may be the key to cheaper flights.

Expedia Travel expert Melanie Fish told AFAR that the most popular destinations for this holiday season include mainstay destinations like New York City, Los Angeles, Cancun, Orlando, and Miami, as well as some unexpected destinations like Hong Kong and Osaka.

Similarly, Hopper listed New York, Orlando, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Denver as the most popular domestic destinations and Tokyo, London, Paris, Shanghai, and Mexico City as the busiest international locales.

Consider using points or miles for last-minute economy tickets

To ease the strain on your wallet, see if you can book the flight with points or miles you have accumulated. When last-minute cash prices are high, you often can get the best redemption value for points and miles.

“A lot of people hoard their points and miles for fancier front-of-plane seats, but if those currencies allow you to take a flight you might not have had the opportunity otherwise to spend time with loved ones, it might be worth cashing some in for a winter holiday economy flight,” Nastro says.

Similarly, if you have pandemic-related airline cash or points, now would be a good time to spend them—many expire at the end of the year.

At a minimum, book three weeks in advance

While fares fluctuate throughout the holiday season, Nastro advises that, at the very least, book before you’re three weeks out from your travel day.

“A lot of fares have an advance purchase requirement, which says that a particular price is only available if you purchase before a certain point before departure,” Nastro explains. “This is often 21 days before departure. On day 20, that price disappears, and a new (often much higher) fare takes its place.”

Hopper’s report also noted that in the week before Thanksgiving, you can expect the prices to rise an average of $30 per day (or more). For Christmas, it’s more than $40 per day.

Be flexible

If you need to travel during the winter holidays, the above tips are paramount for snagging a more affordable ticket. But if you just want to travel, then flexibility on when and where could be helpful in scoring a deal.

“Let the deal answer the question of ‘where to?’” Nastro says. “Being open to destinations can allow you to not only find a fantastic price on airfare but also open your world to experiences that you might not have considered but are just as enjoyable as the old standbys.”

One way to find cheaper flights is to play with Google Flight’s Explore tool. You can input your departure city, preferred travel dates, and click “Explore.” You’ll then be brought to a page listing the spread of cheapest flights to destinations throughout the world.

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at AFAR. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More from AFAR