Holiday airfares are about to start climbing; now is the time to book

6 October 2023

There’s good news for Americans weary from high airfares: Prices are finally coming down.

As the overall “revenge travel” trend begins to cool — and the strongest demand turns toward long-haul destinations — prices for domestic travel are beginning to decrease. This offers a degree of relief ahead of the holiday season.

The bad news: Prices are still high, historically speaking.

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Data provided by Airlines Reporting Corporation shows that the average fare paid so far this year for travel during the holiday period is $415 — down roughly 9% from 2022’s all-time high average of $455.

Still, prices are up about 8% from 2019, the last period before the pandemic, when fares averaged $385. That average represents all travel, including international.

This year’s decrease is even sharper when domestic fares are considered separately; fares went down 12% to 14% from last year at an average of $268 for Thanksgiving and $400 for Christmas and New Year’s, according to travel booking and data service Hopper.

There’s also a split between Thanksgiving and Christmas compared to before the pandemic, according to Hopper: While domestic Thanksgiving fares are down 7% from 2019 levels, Christmas travel prices are up 29% compared to the last pre-pandemic year.

Nevertheless, the overall decrease in average airfares compared to last year represents a relief in one of the consumer spending categories with the highest inflation rate, based on Consumer Pricing Index data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It also serves as a timely reminder for those planning to travel for the holidays that now is the time to book.

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Tickets for holiday travel tend to be cheapest when purchased before Oct. 14, according to Hopper.

That analysis aligns with trends that ARC has spotted over recent years; tickets, on average, were 2% more expensive if purchased in October or November than in September.

An interesting exception to this rule came last year: Holiday fares were 4% cheaper when booked in October or November compared to September.

The reason, according to ARC, is that airfare reached record highs in the summer of 2022 amid a near-insatiable surge in travel demand. Because of that, fares remained elevated in September, which (like most of October) is considered part of the summer travel season by the International Air Transport Association.

When to fly for the holidays

If you can be somewhat flexible on your travel days, it’s possible to save more on holiday flights, Hopper says.

For Thanksgiving, the best option is to depart a week ahead of time or at least earlier in the week, according to Hopper.

Flying on Thursday, Nov. 16, or Monday, Nov. 20, means you could save up to 20% on your outbound fare. Returning on Black Friday or Monday, Nov. 27, is the best bet.

Travelers who stay for the weekend and head home on Sunday, Nov. 26, can expect to pay up to 40% more for those flights.

For Christmas, traveling on Tuesday, Dec. 19, the Sunday of Christmas Eve, or Christmas Monday is the best way to find the cheapest flights. You can save up to 26%.

Friday, Dec. 22, will likely have the highest fares, Hopper says, with travelers looking to make a long weekend out of the holiday.

To save on the return flight, Hopper suggests avoiding the two days after Christmas and flying on Thursday, Dec. 28 instead. That’s the only sweet spot in the post-holiday schedule. As you get closer to the weekend, fares will begin to rise again ahead of New Year’s Eve, Hopper says.

Despite the high demand, it’s also possible to find solid points and miles redemption rates, so it’s always worth checking both cash and miles pricing to see which is the best option.

Related reading:

The best airline credit cards
What exactly are airline miles, anyway?
6 real-life strategies you can use when your flight is canceled or delayed
Maximize your airfare: The best credit cards for booking flights
What are points and miles worth? TPG’s monthly valuations

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