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When is the best time to book vacation flights?

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Radio stations are far from lining up for Christmas playlists, but it’s time to start thinking about booking holiday flights. Travelers who shop months earlier tend to have an advantage over those who wait – less competition.

“Airfares are tied to supply and demand, and prices are always cheaper when there are more seats available,” said Mark Crossey, US travel expert for booking platform Skyscanner, in an email.

And as the seats fill up, the prices go up.

“It’s the same way you want to buy your winter coats in the summer,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “Ditto with those winter holiday flights for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years.”

Does that mean you should book this minute? Not enough. We spoke to industry experts to share best practices for booking budget-conscious vacation travel.

September is the sweet spot

Looking at data from Google Flights, airfares tend to drop about three months before the holidays, Google spokesman Craig Ewer said. This means that for late December travel, “the second half of September was a good time to review your options and set up price tracking alerts,” Ewer said in an email.

Priceline data leads to a similar conclusion. According to CEO Brett Keller, the closer you get to the holiday season (but not too close), average prices for domestic flights and hotels tend to drop. In previous years, air fares were cheapest in September and October. Keller therefore recommends that buyers book their holiday trips in the fall.

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Hayley Berg, chief economist at travel booking app Hopper, says traveler demand is waning after the peak holiday months of May, June and July. In October and November, when people shift their focus from summer vacations to winter plans, vacation travel prices will come back along with demand.

Moral of the story: Prices should drop in the fall, but go too far out of season and “it’s almost certain that fares are going to get more expensive for this winter vacation rather than cheaper,” said Keyes.

Last minute exceptions

If you can be very flexible with your travel plans, it may be possible to find a last minute deal on airfare for the holidays. “You must be lucky,” Keyes said.

Ewer says technically the cheapest winter holiday fares Google Flights has seen in the past were available right after Thanksgiving. However, “they’re not dramatically lower than what you’d see in October or November,” Ewer said, “and you’ll probably want to plan further in advance, as prices can vary depending on the route you’re taking. “.

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Chris Hutchins, travel expert and host of the “All the Hacks” podcast, says you can improve your chances of getting a deal if you pay with points or miles. Even when spot prices for last-minute fares skyrocket, Hutchins says most airlines “often drop to very low amounts when you’re paying with miles.”

Hutchins says that’s because airlines know that business travelers and wealthier (or desperate) customers will pay directly for high fares. But if they need to fill the plane, agreements with miles can emerge.

“On most mainstream airlines — United, Delta, American — I’ve found a lot of great deals over the past five to seven days,” Hutchins said.

How does this year compare to past holiday trips?

Naturally, demand for airfare during major federal holidays is higher, so you can expect to pay more for flights than during quieter times of the year. While Keyes says deals have popped up for Christmas and New Years travel, it could still cost you more this year.

“Then again, pretty much everything we buy is more expensive now than it was a few years ago,” Sara Rathner, travel expert at NerdWallet, told The Washington Post in an email.

Berg says overall holiday ticket prices are expected to be above 2019 levels. Currently, the average domestic airfare around Christmas is $462 per return ticket, up 25% from this period in 2019 and by 11% compared to 2018. For international flights, prices increased by 16% compared to 2019 and by 7%. higher than 2018.

“We can be almost certain that vacation travel demand in 2022 will exceed that of 2019,” Clem Bason, chief travel officer of travel and e-commerce company Snapcommerce, said in an email. “There are many factors that all point to higher prices, bumpy travel and more moving bodies.”

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Your best bet for finding a decent plane ticket for the holidays is to let your computer do it for you.

Start tracking prices for your desired routes by setting price alerts. These will show you when prices are falling and rising, and analyze whether prices are high, low or standard.

Remember that ticket prices can change up to 130 times before the flight takes off, so just because they go up one day doesn’t mean they won’t go down again.

For example, airlines may add flights to meet demand for busy routes. “As they do, the prices will change,” Crossey said. A price alert would catch the change.

How do you actually get those $49 flights? There is always a catch in airline sales.

Be creative with the routes you follow. Crossey says the best deals are often found by using different airlines for outbound and inbound flights, or co-opting departure and return to different airports (like taking off from JFK and returning to LGA).

Once you see a great fare, especially if it’s on an airline with no change fees that you know you’ll be flying again, “you can book an attractive flight now and continue shopping for a lower price”, Rathner said.

If you find something cheaper, you can void your original ticket for a flight voucher to use later. Or you can simply book with points. Hutchins says that in many cases, if you cancel a flight booked with miles, you’ll just get them back.

But be warned, “different airlines have different rules, so before trying this, make sure your reservation would be eligible for a change,” Rathner said.