If you are planning on traveling over the winter holidays, join the club: So are many of your fellow Americans, with the Sunday after Thanksgiving typically being the very worst, most overcrowded day to pile onto a flight. But don’t let that deter you from having a great time with friends and family during the season. Instead, be a smart planner and learn the best times to book your trip.
This guide will help you get the best deal possible, covering such need-to-know topics as:
• When to book holiday flights
• When to book a holiday cruise
• When to book a holiday car rental
• Holiday travel tips
Why Holiday Travel Is So Chaotic
There are several reasons why holiday travel is inherently more hectic than any other time of year.
• The skies are filled with people who are infrequent travelers, flying only around the holidays or perhaps not having flown at all in a few years. These travelers are less familiar with the airports and airlines (plus details like baggage requirements). That translates into their taking longer to check in, go through security, and board their plane, causing some bottlenecks.
• There’s also the sheer volume of holiday travelers that can make getting to and from your destination challenging. To give you an idea of the order of magnitude here, about 54 million Americans traveled for Thanksgiving 2022. That kind of volume can mean airports, airplanes, and hotels may be at full capacity, and rental car lots can be empty. Not a big problem when everything is running smoothly, but throw in a winter storm or other disruption, and there’s no slack left in the system.
• When Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve roll around, it’s a big deal: Everyone wants to travel at the same time. With spring break, different school districts get out at different times, but Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year holidays only occur once on each calendar. And it’s not like travelers can just reschedule their holiday plans if there’s a delay.
When to Book Holiday Flights
So, agreed: The holidays are a super popular time to travel. Every year, budget-conscious travelers look to save money by trying to precisely time their purchase of holiday flights. Here’s some intel that can help you have the most choice and pay the best price.
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For domestic flights, the best time to book them is often as early as possible. Most airlines will open their schedules up about 11 months in advance, and you can often find the least expensive flights at that time. Other airlines (like Southwest) release their schedules in batches, often around six or eight months in advance. When the schedule is released, you’ll have the largest choice of itineraries, and often the least expensive tickets.
Before the pandemic, most airlines imposed very high fees for changes and cancellations. That gave travelers an incentive to try to time their purchases to when they think the prices will be lowest. But now, many major airlines have dropped their change and cancellation fees, giving travelers the opportunity to make reservations sooner, knowing that they can rebook their flights if the price drops.
Booking early can also give you a jump on nabbing those sought-after free or discounted seats that can be obtained by getting the most out of your credit card rewards.
For international flights, some airlines still impose change and cancellation fees, so the timing becomes more important. And the best time to purchase an international flight can vary based on your destination. According to a survey done by CheapAir.com, it’s best to buy tickets to Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Asia about 10 months out, though you might get lucky with a booking window of a month and a half to two months before your travel dates.
However, these figures were for travel year-round, and holiday travelers might wish to book as far out as possible, especially if you plan on using credit card rewards.
Recommended: What Is an Airline Credit Card?
Booking Hotels for the Holidays: Advance vs Last-Minute
When it comes to saving money on hotels during the holidays, you are almost always better off booking in advance. Holidays are peak travel times at leisure destinations, and you can expect many hotels and resorts to be sold out as you approach December.
Having a hotel credit card may help sweeten the deal, as you’ll be eligible for perks like late checkouts and room upgrades, plus earning points.
How Far in Advance to Reserve Rental Cars for the Holidays
There’s really no reason not to book a rental car as soon as you make your holiday plans. Rental cars have been in very short supply and quite expensive since the pandemic. At a minimum, you’ll likely want to lock in a set of wheels three to six months prior to your travel dates, when prices tend to be most competitive.
When to Book a Holiday Cruise
Just as with hotels and rental cars, you will often receive the best pricing and availability when you book your holiday cruise as early as possible. In fact, some cruises are available for booking over a year in advance.
You’ll usually find the best prices and perks if you book during what is known as “wave season,” which typically runs from January to March.
Best Time to Book Tours, Sites, and Activities
Certainly, if there’s a show or other high-demand activity you have your heart set on (such as seeing the Rockettes’ Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall in New York), then you’ll want to book it at least several months in advance.
But if it’s not a major tour or attraction, then you might be able to book it just a few weeks out, or be spontaneous and book it at the last minute. Aside from the holidays, winter is usually the low season for most places, except warm-weather destinations. That’s why you might be surprised to find activities available at the last minute.
Tips for Holiday Travel
Here are some holiday travel tips to help make your winter vacay as affordable and stress-free as possible:
• To make the most of your holiday travel, accept that you’ll be one of tens of millions of holiday travelers and systems will be on overload. Ideally, you can pack light and avoid checking a bag, which can be a major cost both in time and money, as well as one more thing that can go wrong.
• Join TSA PreCheck, which allows you to speed through airport security without taking off your belt or shoes, or removing your liquids or electronics. Thankfully, many travel credit cards and airline credit cards reimburse travelers for the application fee, which is $78 for five years.
• Of course, avoiding peak days, like the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after, can make travel a little less daunting. And if you don’t celebrate a particular holiday (say, Christmas), traveling on that day can often result in a smooth, crowd-free experience.
• If you know you have holiday travel coming up, it can be wise to start a travel fund in advance. You might set up automatic transfers into it the day after every payday.
• Planning some pricey travel (say, a family reunion in Florida for New Year’s Eve) that you don’t have the funds for? Look into your options. A vacation loan could be an alternative to consider vs. putting the cost of the trip on your credit card.
Holiday travel is an American tradition, which means demand (and stress) can be sky-high. By planning your trip as far in advance as possible and taking into account the crowds, you can afford a family vacation that makes the most of the season. Knowing when and how to get the best deals can help you enjoy the most wonderful time of the year.
Whether you want to travel more or get a better ROI for your travel dollar, SoFi can help. SoFi Travel is a new service exclusively for SoFi members that lets you budget, plan, and book your next trip in a convenient one-stop shop. SoFi takes the guessing game out of how much you can afford for that honeymoon, family vacation, or quick getaway — and we help you save too.
Photo credit: iStock/svetikd
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