Finding cheap airfare around the holidays is never an easy task.
Though customers have seen some relief in recent months, the holidays are generally shaping up to be both busy and pricey. As TPG reported last month, your best bet to find the cheapest airfare for the major year-end holidays is, without a doubt, to book sooner rather than later.
But how can you find the cheapest destinations to visit for the holidays? It may require some creativity.
Finding the cheapest holiday airfare
One thing we frequently discuss here at TPG is flexibility: The more flexible you are, the better chance you have to find a good deal.
After all, if you’re not tied down to a particular location, specific travel dates, certain time of day or a particular airline, you can maximize your potential for finding the best deal.
In fact, lack of flexibility is exactly what can make the holiday travel so difficult — and expensive.
Many Thanksgiving travelers, for instance, have schedules that dictate they must leave during the afternoon or evening hours Wednesday, the day before the holiday, to fly to a specific destination. That doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for alternative itinerary options.
“Most folks don’t associate Thanksgiving with cheap flights, but that’s because most people are traveling home to visit family,” Scott Keyes, founder of airfare-tracking site Going, told TPG.
To the extent you can skirt those trends, though, you might be able to find better deals.
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What will it cost to fly?
In its holiday travel forecast published in recent weeks, booking app Hopper noted average Thanksgiving airfare for a domestic flight came in at around $268, down 14% from last year.
Christmas is a different story, though, with average domestic round trips averaging around $400 — down from last year but up significantly, 29%, from 2019.
Keep in mind, though, that these are merely averages. What you’ll pay for your holiday trip really comes down to the individual route you’re flying.
But you can use those averages as a benchmark to try and “beat” as you decide what price you’re willing to settle for.
Finding the cheapest places to travel for Thanksgiving
If flying overseas for Thanksgiving has never occurred to you, you’re certainly not alone. After all, the thought of traveling to a country that doesn’t celebrate one of the most iconic American holidays may seem counterintuitive.
But when it comes to prices, that outside-the-box approach can work in your favor.
“Thanksgiving is the hidden best week for international travel,” Keyes says. “All those people traveling domestically are, by definition, not traveling internationally.”
That means Thanksgiving prices for international flights don’t spike at the same rate domestic flights do. They may be cheaper than usual — a basic case of supply and demand.
International flights over Thanksgiving
To get your money’s worth and tap into the cheapest prices, you may want to take an additional day or two off work on the front or back end of the holiday period. (This is a great option in general as you consider Thanksgiving travel.)
For instance, even as domestic airfare spikes over the Thanksgiving holiday, you can still find a round trip from New York to Paris for $546, flying on a combination Star Alliance itinerary (United Airlines on the way out, Air Canada on the way back).
For comparison, you might pay more than that for a domestic flight over Thanksgiving. Check out the peak travel day prices from Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW). The round-trip journey costs more than $600.
Another destination to consider? South America.
Hopper says Thanksgiving-week airfare to South America is trending 12% cheaper than 2019; it’s the only continent or major international region seeing broad declines in pricing over the Thanksgiving holiday when compared with pre-pandemic travel in 2019, its data shows.
How to know if you’re getting a good deal
It’s difficult to provide a catch-all destination that’s cheap to fly to over the holidays.
After all, with airfare largely determined by constantly fluctuating supply and demand-based algorithms, you might see prices to a destination low from one city but sky-high from another.
There are some tricks, though.
Google Flights has a function that will tell you how current fares compare to historical data.
For instance, the search engine rates our New York-to-Paris airfare on the “low” end of the spectrum, hundreds of dollars cheaper than what you’ll typically find.
On the other hand, the cheapest trip from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Los Cabos International Airport (SJD) during those dates comes to more than $1,200.
Though you may not even need Google to validate this for you, that registers as (very) “high.”
Tools like these can help you decide whether to spring for one itinerary based on the price or opt for another.
Finding the cheapest places to travel for Christmas
Although there’s some hope of finding some decent deals for Thanksgiving, it’s getting harder to say the same about the end-of-year holidays.
Average airfare across the board (not just including the holidays) is down 13% year-over-year, according to Katy Nastro, Going spokesperson and travel expert. “That doesn’t change the fact that the winter holidays are the busiest time of the year to travel, which can mean surrendering to ridiculously high prices if you book last minute,” she said.
“The closer we get to the holidays, the lower your odds of a cheap flight,” Nastro added.
Compared to full calendar year airfare averages, Hopper is tracking marginal price drops to just a couple of regions over Christmas:
- The Caribbean is seeing an 8% drop compared to the calendar year average. (However, we found plenty of $800 and $900 round trips to islands from the East Coast, so you still may have to search a bit to find a good deal.)
- Oceania (think Australia and New Zealand) is seeing an 8% drop versus the calendar year average — something to consider if you’re thinking about a long-haul holiday excursion.
Find ways to save beyond airfare
If you end up having to pay more for airfare than you’d like, your next best option may be to find other opportunities along your trip to save.
Your hotel is a big part of that, particularly in a year when lodging prices have remained high.
Over the end-of-year holidays, that may involve considering a U.S. destination even if you’d had your heart set on traveling internationally, according to Melinda Fortunato, a travel adviser based outside Washington, D.C.
“What I’m hearing from hotel partners in the U.S. is, because there’s such a push for international travel, there’s still a lot of openings in the U.S.,” Fortunato, the president of Best Travel, said. “In some cases, they are having specials and packages and things like that to attract customers.”
Internationally, she recommends seeking out lesser-known, more “off-the-beaten-path” destinations.
“If you want to go to the typical Paris, London — the big cities and, during the holidays, the Christmas markets — then those places are still going to be expensive and availability is going to be tight,” Fortunato said, recommending small towns in Europe as an alternative.
And don’t forget about the savings you can pick up in places like Colombia, Argentina and Peru where the dollar is strong right now. This can help you save on everything from your hotel to your ground transportation and meals.
If you do decide to pay for a trip out of pocket instead of using points or miles, be sure to take advantage of those American Express Membership Week offers you (hopefully) added to your account, which can help you save hundreds on your holiday travels.
And finally, you can always search award space on an airline that doesn’t use dynamic pricing for its redemptions, such as Avianca.
There may not be any award space available on some flights. In other cases, you may be able to snag an award flight that isn’t subject to the same forces that cause dynamically priced awards to spike with cash prices over the holidays. This can be a way to put your hard-earned credit card points to good use over the holidays.
If airfare the last couple of years has taught us anything, it’s that prices will fluctuate, and your best bet to secure a deal is to lock it in when you see it.
You may not find a $150 transcontinental flight at Christmas. However, thinking a bit outside the box on your destinations — and using tools like Google Flights to find which departure and return dates get you the best price — could go a long way toward saving you money on holiday travel this year.