When traveling for the holidays, it’s important to know which days to target and which to avoid.
Gearing up for the holidays means different things to different people, but anyone who lives far from family knows that part of the season’s prep involves travel plans. And few things spoil the holiday spirit more than hours-long waits at security checkpoints, over-booked flights, or sky-high airline ticket prices.
Best Days to Fly for the Holidays
Thanksgiving is often decried as the worst time to travel, and for good reason. Specifically, the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving make for not only the biggest airport crowds but also the highest ticket prices. If you don’t love long lines at security, that means avoiding flying on November 20th and 21st this year. Fares on these days average $509 and $507 respectively.*
To avoid the worst of the crowds, choose the Monday before Thanksgiving (November 19th) or even Thanksgiving Day itself (November 22nd), both of which experience lighter traffic levels. As an added bonus, those days typically have some of the lowest prices on tickets around the Thanksgiving holiday, averaging $465 and $446 respectively.
Unlike Thanksgiving, the day of the week on which Christmas falls changes each year. Despite that, the busiest pre-Christmas travel days are generally two or three days before the holiday, regardless of what days they are. This year, that means December 22nd and 23rd—a Saturday and Sunday—will be the busiest.
Expect crowds at their lightest and ticket prices at their lowest on Christmas Eve, with an average fare of $512.
When to Buy Tickets for Holiday Air Travel
Anyone who’s bought plane tickets for holiday travel knows that airlines often make holiday trips part of their “blackout” dates, meaning frequent flyer miles can’t be used and discounts are unlikely. In fact, it’s not unusual for holiday flights to have surcharges attached. Travelers can’t get around those blackout dates or surcharges but educating yourself about the best time to buy tickets may save you money—and stress.
Generally speaking, booking well in advance affords travelers with a greater number of schedule and flight options, but early purchases come with higher prices. On the other hand, booking at the last minute can mean paying some of the lowest fares for holiday trips but flight options will be limited. Most travelers book 28 to 60 days ahead of the holiday. This year, that’s September 23–October 25 for Thanksgiving trips and October 26–November 27 for Christmas travel.
For Thanksgiving travelers, tickets booked during this popular window will average $478. If you wait until the last minute to make your purchase, 7 to 13 days ahead of time (November 9–15), you’ll see the lowest prices, at an average of $459.
For Christmas, prices are better for travelers who book 61 to 90 days ahead (September 23–October 25). These tickets cost an average of $551. As with Thanksgiving travel, expect the lowest fares on tickets booked 7 to 13 days before the holiday (December 12–18), with an average cost of $488.
In most cases, says AAA’s Julie Hall, “The best option is to find a happy medium.” Booking a couple weeks before your holiday trip may save you money, but availability will be extremely limited. Booking well in advance gives you the pick of the litter in terms of flights, but you’ll pay more for that privilege. Hall says that for most travelers, it’s about finding the balance between “optimal availability and moderate fares.”
Regardless of when you book your Thanksgiving or Christmas flights, AAA recommends travelers get to the airport at least two hours before departure—holidays at the airport always mean longer lines. To streamline the process, enroll in a trusted traveler program like TSA PreCheck or Global Entry.
Smart Tip: When booking winter air travel, avoid the last flight of the day, says Doreen Loofburrow of AAA Travel. Blizzards, ice storms, and other wild weather events lead to delays and cancellations, meaning night flights can get pushed to the next day. An earlier flight provides a cushion, ensuring that you actually start your trip on the day you intended.
*All fare averages based on airline tickets purchased by AAA Members for the 2015-2017 November/December holiday travel windows.
AAA Members can search for flights and book online with AAA Travel.