When and where you should book for the holidays, by the numbers

Bekah Wright

Procrastinators of the world take note – though the best window for purchasing airline tickets for holiday travel was September through mid-October, there’s still time to book Thanksgiving and December holiday trips. Several travel sites told Yahoo Travel that strategic planning may save substantial dough for those who didn’t get in on early sales.

Thanksgiving is only weeks away, and though online metasearch site Kayak reports rates will have increased 17% from their lowest, there are still airline tickets, and deals, to be had. U.S. travelers wanting to dine on turkey away from home should book flights now. When booking Thanksgiving travel, Kayak says tickets departing on Monday or Tuesday domestically cost 15-23% below average. Returning Thanksgiving Day, Friday or the following Tuesday can save travelers more than 20%. The biggest saving comes when both departing and returning on Thanksgiving Day, a move that can rack up to 36% below average fares.

Travelers looking for hotel stays over Thanksgiving should be pleasantly surprised by decreased rates, Katie Merrill, a spokeswoman for the hotel online search site Trivago, told Yahoo Travel. What the site’s data has shown: “As most Americans are home with family, hotel prices – outside of big tourist hotspots for the holiday such as New York City and Las Vegas – see decreases,” says Merrill.

Trivago has found 2013’s top 10 most searched Thanksgiving destinations for American travelers to be Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Dallas, Boston, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Denver, Philadelphia, Memphis and Phoenix. All but two of the destinations – Las Vegas (up 15%) and Memphis (up 11%) – show price decreases over Thanksgiving when compared with earlier periods in November. Prices dropped 20% in Denver for the holiday, 22% in Boston, 24% in Philadelphia and 19% in Washington.

Are your sights set on international travel? “Last year, there was no low period for international airfare for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s Eve,” Maria Katime, a spokesperson for Kayak told Yahoo Travel. “Instead, airfare steadily increased closer to departure.” Kayak’s recommendations for international Thanksgiving travel – leave close to or on Thanksgiving Day or stay through the weekend, as average airfares tend to be lower on these days.

December is creeping up, as are holiday fares for that month. “We looked at the top 25 most popular U.S. destinations, flights between those destinations and different dates to see if there were any trends,” Adam Goldstein, CEO of travel comparison site Hipmunk, told Yahoo Travel with data released Tuesday. “We found, on average, fares were more than 50% more expensive if you waited from the first or second week in November until the week just before holidays.”

Grabbing the best deals should be done the week leading up to Veteran’s Day, Nov. 5-11, according to Hipmunk, a move that could save an average of $266 over booking in December. If 2013 follows 2012’s trends, Hipmunk anticipates airfare for Dec. 22-29 will increase up to 28% when booked between Dec. 3-9 ($651 rather than $509 per ticket), and up to 52% when booked on or after December 10 ($775 rather than $509 per ticket).

Both Hipmunk and Kayak offer tips to those still wanting to book holiday travel but not break the bank. “Be flexible when it comes to dates, times and alternate airports,” says Goldstein. “People often type in JFK when looking at flying into New York, forgetting there are two other nearby airports. Sometimes, you can find better fares at those airports and non-stop flight options.”

As for travel dates for Christmas holidays, Kayak suggests traveling as close to the 25th as possible. “Last year, this saved travelers more than 20% on average,” says Katime. “Try to avoid departing and returning during the weekends surrounding Christmas, when fares can be up to 24% above average.” For international travel, Kayak found trips three to five days in length centered around the holidays offered the best savings.

Another Kayak tip – use their Price Forecast tool, which uses data from multiple faring and availability providers to predict whether search prices are likely to rise or fall within the next seven days.

Not finding affordable flights? Beyond driving to a destination, Hipmunk recommends looking at train fares. “Taking a train may make more sense,” says Goldstein. “Especially between cities like San Diego and Los Angeles or Seattle and Portland. We’re the only site that shows flight and train fares side-by-side for comparison.” Another plus for train travel – less crowding in stations and no security lines.

Unlike Thanksgiving, hotel stay prices trend up, according to Trivago, over the nights of Dec. 24-25 at the top-searched sites – Las Vegas 13%, Miami Beach 36%, Orlando 31% and Fort Lauderdale 17%. Says Merrill, “All prices went up over Christmas when compared to earlier periods in the month over the same days of the week, except New York City, whose prices decreased by 4%.”

Hipmunk’s strategy for finding less expensive lodging – check out home rentals via Airbnb and HomeAway, compared alongside hotels on their site. They also feature Hipmunk’s Tonight Deals, through which users can save up to 60% off last-minute hotel bookings.