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Planning to travel for the holidays? Here’s how to get the best deals on flights. (Photo: Studio Firma/Stocksy)
By Johnny Jet
It’s that time of year again when my phone starts ringing off the hook and the messages start flooding in on email and Facebook. “How can I find a cheap flight for Thanksgiving and/or Christmas?” The truth is that there are always new websites and apps emerging to help you get the best deal, but the strategies don’t change that much from year to year.
As usual at this time of year, the airlines are expecting to have full planes over the holidays. Luckily, fuel prices are down so there are still some deals to be had…but you’re running out of time. Here are my 14 ways to find cheap flights for Thanksgiving and Christmas 2015:
1. Be flexible
The key to finding cheap Thanksgiving flights is to be flexible with your days. If you aren’t flexible, then you aren’t going to get a deal. It’s not that difficult to figure out that the most expensive time to fly is when everyone else is, too. For example, I bet you want to leave the Wednesday (November 25) before Thanksgiving and return on the Sunday (November 29) or early morning on the Monday (November 30) after. Am I right? You aren’t going to get a deal on those days since the airlines have no incentive to offer them, so you should just stop trying. And if you aren’t flexible on your dates, then stop reading this right now.
Deals are going to be available either the week before or the Sunday or Monday before (depending on the destination), Thanksgiving Day (November 26), and returning on Friday (November 27) or the following Tuesday (December 1). Better yet, look at the Wednesday (December 2) after turkey day. To prove my point, I ran a flexible search on Google Flights (below) for round-trip nonstop flights from New York to Miami for a four-night stay. You can see which days are the cheapest to travel.
Keep in mind the airlines are expecting the busiest days to be Sunday, November 29 and Monday, November 30. The best day to fly will be Thanksgiving Day (November 26).
2. Stay away from the low-cost carriers
When you do a flight search, don’t just grab the cheapest fare you see, especially from a low-cost carriers (LCC) because it could end up costing you much more than you think. Allegiant, Spirit, Frontier, Norwegian, and WOW are just a few that are notorious for offering ridiculously low fares and then hitting you up for everything from assigned seats to checked baggage, and even carry-on luggage. The worst part is that now the legacy airlines like Delta and American (the latter just announced they will start in 2016) don’t want to lose out so they’re going to offer the same kind of fares. My point is to make sure you read the fine print on your fare before buying — even from the mainline carriers.
3. Consider the time of day
Everyone wants to leave after work and school, so when doing your flight search, don’t enter in a specific time. Generally, the most expensive times to fly are peak business travel hours (8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.). Cheaper seats tend to depart early in the morning (5 a.m. to 7 a.m.) or late in the evening (after 8 p.m.).
Note: By leaving early in the morning, you have the best chance of not getting delayed.
4. Alternate airports
Not only do you want to be flexible with dates and times but also with airports, too. For example, rather than flying into (or out of) Miami when going to South Florida, check out Fort Lauderdale Airport (FLL), which is 25 miles north and usually much cheaper. You can also check out West Palm Beach (PBI), which is another 49 miles away. To help you with all the major U.S. alternative airports (by actual driving miles), I created a website called AlternateAirports.com. To see what I’m talking about, see the flexible search for flights from NYC to FLL below.
5. Consider making a stop
Sometimes booking a flight that has a connection as opposed to flying nonstop can save you money. See screenshot below for a flight from Los Angeles to Toronto. By making a stop, you can save hundreds of dollars.
However, not all connections have that much savings so you have to ask yourself if it’s really worth it. If it’s hundreds of dollars then yes, but if it’s just a $20 savings, do you really want to increase your chances of getting delayed or stuck? And be sure to avoid making connections in airports that have a terrible on-time track record like San Francisco, Chicago O’Hare, or all of New York’s airports. Here’s a link to an airport and airline scorecard to help you make a good decision.
6. Search tools
Everyone knows there’s not one website out there that has the absolute cheapest price for airfares, hotels, car rentals, cruises, and package deals so the trick is to do your research and check them all to see who has the best deal at that moment in time. That’s one of the reasons why I created JohnnyJet.com to begin with. We now have a new search engine, where all you have to do is input your city pairs and dates and click “Check Rates.” Six windows will open up as they simultaneously search a variety of travel websites like Expedia, Priceline, and TripAdvisor. It not only saves you time but money, as well.
7. Sign up for flight alerts
If you don’t want to constantly have to check airfares manually (as I like to do for some insane reason) then sign up for fare alerts. Many sites offer this service for free including Airfarewatchdog.com, Kayak, Yapta.com, and FareCompare.com. Here’s a chart that compares the leading airfare alert sites.
8. Hold your airfares for free for 24 hours
You’ve got a 24 hour long escape clause. (Photo: Nemanja Glumac/Stocksy)
Many consumers in the U.S. don’t realize that the Department of Transportation (DOT) has stated that all U.S. and foreign carriers have to allow consumers the ability “to hold a reservation at the quoted fare for 24 hours without payment or allow a reservation to be cancelled within 24 hours without penalty.” See link to the DOT’s full rule (PDF). However, if you’re booking a ticket with fewer than seven days before you fly, this rule doesn’t apply.
Note: American Airlines is the only airline that I’m aware of that allows consumers to hold a reservation without a credit card for 24 hours, making it much easier to cancel. This is yet another reason they are my preferred airline.
9. Choose Southwest Airlines if you’re checking bags
Southwest was the original low-cost carrier so it’s ironic that they’re the only one that doesn’t charge for checked bags. They offer the first and second checked bag for free; most airlines would charge an extra $120 for that on a round-trip ticket. If you’re planning on checking bags and don’t have elite status or an airline branded credit card where one of the perks is free baggage, then check to see if Southwest Airlines is flying your desired route. Remember: Their fares don’t show up in any search engine except their own so you need to log on to Southwest.com.
10. Use frequent flier miles or credit card points
It’s almost impossible to use your airline frequent flier miles during the holidays unless you are flexible with dates or are willing to use double or triple the usual amount. I don’t recommend the latter, but this year I’m using 12,500 American miles for my wife to fly from Los Angeles to Toronto the Friday after Thanksgiving. If I left on Sunday or Monday it was double.
11. Speak to a human
Go ahead. Use your phone for more than just apps and texting. It’ll be worth it, we promise. (Photo: Lumina/Stocksy)
You never know if an airline representative can find a better deal but in my experience, it’s usually only worth it (most charge a $25 fee) when booking a mileage award ticket since they can check partner airlines and alternate cities much quicker. To get in touch with your airline, I created AirlineNumbers.com that lists all of the airline’s phone numbers and websites. To bypass the airlines’ annoying and time-consuming automated prompts, log on to GetHuman.com.
12. Consult a travel agent
As you can see, bargain hunting can be a time-consuming process, but it can pay off big time especially if you are traveling with multiple people. If you don’t want to spend the time and energy doing all the legwork, then call a travel agent and pay their fee, which can be $25 or more. I check with my travel agent but usually only on international flights since sometimes he has different inventory than the travel sites. To give you an example, once I was flying from London to Bangkok and everything I was finding online was over $1,000. I called my travel agent and he found a flight on Etihad through Abu Dhabi for $550. It was well worth the $25 fee.
13. Hidden cities
This hidden city trick is against airline policy so you didn’t learn it from me. But…once I needed to get to Cleveland from LA, and a nonstop one-way ticket was $600. I took my own advice and searched alternate airports, and when I found a ticket to Buffalo for only $230 I noticed the flight first stopped in Cleveland on that exact same $600 flight. I know it makes no sense since Buffalo is farther from Cleveland and you have to take two flights instead of one but that’s the airlines for you. If I wanted to break airline policy I could’ve just gotten off in Cleveland and let my connecting ticket to BUF go to waste. If I had done that, I would have bought a one-way ticket, made sure not to check bags or put in my mileage account number. Remember I’m not recommending this and if you do it a lot you will get caught. Consult Skiplagged, which shows you the hidden cities. Also keep in mind that Skiplagged was sued by United and Orbitz in 2014 for sharing this kind of information; the suit was dismissed on a technicality in 2015, but the incident goes to show that airlines are aware of hidden-city travel, and they don’t like it. Possible penalties include canceling the ticket without refund or voiding your frequent flier miles. You’ve been warned.
14. Take data from online travel agents
Do your research and see what the various travel sites recommend. (Photo: phylicianicole/Twenty20)
Many of the online travel agencies and airfare websites offer up their data, allowing consumers to find the best days to travel. I don’t think it’s 100 percent accurate but it definitely gives you some good ideas about which days to look for. Below is advice from three sites:
Kayak: Says that you should book at least two weeks in advance when traveling in North America for Thanksgiving.
Orbitz: They say the best time to buy for Thanksgiving was on October 6, Christmas October 9 and New Year’s October 10th but don’t sweat it – there are still good days to buy in October and November. See their calendar.
Hopper: The most expensive days to travel over the 2015 holiday period are the weekends after Christmas (December 26 and 27) and New Years (January 2 and 3).
Unlike Thanksgiving prices, which tend to start high and remain high as the holiday draws near, Christmas flight prices tend to rise more steadily as Christmas approaches and then spike in the last ten days. Right now, demand is still pretty low for Christmas flights, but our team found that prices are actually rising faster than in 2014. This means you should consider booking quickly.
So there you have it…I feel like you have just turned me upside down and shook all the tricks out of me. I hope this guide helps you find cheap Thanksgiving and Christmas flights and more importantly, motivates you to spend the holidays with the ones you love.
To a happy and safe Thanksgiving and holiday season for all!