Holiday airfare is rising: What to know if you haven’t booked yet
This story has been updated with new information.
Airfares soared this holiday season — up dramatically from last year and even higher than pre-pandemic 2019.
If you haven’t started looking at your flight options for Christmas or New Year’s yet (and you should if you plan on traveling for one of these holidays), you may be disappointed at what you find.
Since late summer, travel experts have been advising travelers to book holiday airfare as soon as possible and no later than the middle of October. That's because fares for Christmas travel averaged $430 per ticket — a 53% increase from 2021 levels and a 17% increase from 2019 — around then, according to an October analysis by travel site Hopper.
Now, with Christmas only 25 days away and New Year's a mere 31 days away, you may find an even loftier price tag, depending on your destination and travel dates.
That’s not to say any semblance of a good (or at least halfway decent) deal is gone, though. While there were many disruptions to air travel this summer, it’s also been a volatile year for airfare, making the price you pay all the more unpredictable.
Costs skyrocketed during the first half of 2022 as airlines dealt with a combination of inflation and rising fuel prices; there was also an uneven supply and demand equation as interest in travel roared back to life after two-plus years of disruptions due to the pandemic. Late in the summer, as passengers began to satisfy their pent-up cravings to travel, prices came down a bit but have generally remained well above those seen in past years.
Even with summer far behind us, holiday travel has experienced a strong comeback this year. In fact, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Nov. 27, was the busiest travel day for passenger traffic since the start of the pandemic, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration.
The demand is sure to be there for the upcoming holidays as well. Therefore, as the season draws near, experts suggest acting fast.
“Airfare almost always goes one direction in the final weeks before travel, and it’s not down,” Scott Keyes, founder of airfare tracking site Scott’s Cheap Flights, told TPG.
At the same time, we know plenty of travelers who want to get away for Christmas and New Year’s but have yet to book. If you're one of them, here are some tips and advice to abide by as you look to lock in airfare for the holidays.
Book holiday flights as soon as possible
What to expect when looking to book Christmas and New Year’s flights
In past years, the mantra has been, "Book Christmas flights by Thanksgiving."
This year, however, airfare experts recommended booking all holiday travel as soon as possible — ideally before Thanksgiving, as waiting until after the holiday could be a gamble.
“My advice to travelers now is that if you find flights with a convenient schedule and fares that fit your budget, book them,” airline industry analyst Henry Harteveldt told TPG earlier this fall. “Don’t try to game the system.”
Can you book holiday flights now and change them later?
Booking all holiday travel at the same time this year may seem a bit daunting from a budgetary standpoint. Not to mention, sometimes it takes a while for holiday plans to solidify.
It begs the question: If you book now and find a cheaper flight later, can you change your trip? Or, if your plans change, can you cancel your flight? By and large, the answer to both is yes but with some important caveats to know.
For the four largest U.S. carriers — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines — you can now change your ticket without paying a change fee. Generally, if you find a cheaper flight down the road, you can rebook and get airline flight credits for the price difference between the two flights, which you could use on a future trip. You can alternatively opt for a full refund when canceling certain higher-level tickets or when using miles in some programs.
As for this flexibility on American, Delta and United, it generally applies to domestic flights and all flights originating in North America, depending on the airline. Check your carrier’s individual policy if you’re looking to change an international flight.
Remember, American, Delta and United exclude basic economy tickets from this flexibility. So, if you think you might want to make a change later on, you’re better off booking a regular economy ticket and not a highly restrictive one.
Is it too late to book holiday flights?
Sure, you might have gotten a better deal if you’d booked your holiday flights in September. However, if you’re just now starting to check airfare for Christmas and New Year’s and are finding the prices a bit daunting, here are some tricks and tactics you can try to bring costs down and avoid headaches.
Be flexible with your travel dates
If you’re plugging in your destination and travel dates for the holidays and find prices are exorbitant, see if you can be a bit more flexible. While work, school and life don’t always allow for a lot of flexibility, keep in mind that having fewer requirements for your travel needs can help you capture the best deals.
For example, let’s say I’m in Washington, D.C., looking to fly to New Jersey to visit family for Christmas but have a pretty rigid schedule that prevents me from being able to leave later than 5 p.m. on Dec. 21, requires departing from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) and includes returning the Tuesday after Christmas since I have to be at work the next day. I’ve now put a lot of “filters” on my travel, so I'm severely restricting the number of deals I'll be able to find.
The cheapest itinerary I found that fits all of these parameters goes for $237 on United.
Now, let’s try adding a little flexibility to my search. Can I work remotely on the days leading into and/or out of the holiday? Could I perhaps even work remotely up until New Year's? Or, would it be possible to expand my search to include other D.C. airports and a wider range of times? Any of these tweaks would certainly help.
By adjusting my return date to Jan. 2 instead of the busy Sunday travel day, I have a number of round-trip options on United to choose from for $168. This one change gets me a savings of about 29%.
Obviously, if you need to stay in a hotel for more nights because of extending your trip, that can quickly offset what you're saving on flights. However, if you are happy to stay with family for a few more days, it could be a way to save some cash and enjoy a longer getaway at the same time.
Opening up your search goes a long way to increasing the odds you'll find better flight prices.
Fly on the holiday, if you can
If your search still isn’t turning up satisfactory prices for the days surrounding the holiday, one option you might want to explore is flying early on the holiday itself, whether it’s Christmas or New Year’s.
It’s not ideal, and we hate to miss precious time with family. However, prices can often be lower for flights on a holiday.
I’ve also personally found that holiday morning flights can be relatively pleasant, with thinner crowds in the airports compared to the often chaotic days surrounding the major holidays.
Whether this is a realistic option depends, of course, on your family’s particular celebration plans, but it’s something to consider if you’re not finding any affordable flights immediately before or after the holiday.
Consider alternative destinations
Another way to skirt high holiday airfares is to go where the prices are lower. If you have to visit a particular city for the holidays and the prices are high, you don’t have a lot of wiggle room.
Consider this: Is there any chance of meeting family in an alternative city instead of traveling to someone’s house? Could you pick an alternative vacation destination around Christmas and New Year’s? Thinking outside the box can allow you to select airfare based on the best prices, rather than being at the mercy of prices to a particular city.
You can use Google Flights to show you airfare prices to places around the country — or the globe — on the dates you want to travel.
Hold a flight when possible
If you’ve found airfare you like but aren’t 100% sure of your plans yet, put a hold on it.
Some airlines will let you put a hold or fare lock on airfare if you find a price and itinerary that will work for your travel needs but are not ready to book just yet. It’s one of my favorite ways to give myself more time to make up my mind.
On United, you can pay a small fee to lock in airfare — a few dollars will generally get you a few days — after which you can either purchase the trip or cancel it.
Keep in mind, if the airline doesn’t allow you to hold a flight, federal regulations require the carrier to give you 24 hours to cancel and get a full refund, so it’s not a problem if you book your flight and then quickly change your mind.
Once again, if you find a better price later, most airlines will let you cancel and switch to a new trip with no penalty (on domestic trips at least), provided it wasn’t a basic economy fare.
Use Capital One Travel’s price protection feature
Another tool you can use if you are shopping for holiday airfare with travel credit cards like the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card is the Capital One price protection feature.
With this feature, you can leverage Capital One’s relationship with Hopper to use the site’s airfare algorithms to suggest whether you book now or wait for prices to drop. This can make you eligible for a credit in the event the price unexpectedly drops.
Don’t forget to check award pricing, but tread carefully
Certainly, if you have miles saved up, it’s always great to book flights without having to shell out cash.
Just be especially careful around the holidays to vet whether you’re getting a good redemption for your hard-earned miles. While the cash prices aren’t appealing for Christmas and New Year's, the award prices might be even worse. This can be especially true as more airlines shift to revenue-based award pricing models that remove a layer of predictability from what you pay in points and miles.
Resources like TPG’s points and miles valuations and awards versus cash calculator can be a great way to determine whether you’re better off using cash or your miles.
Yes, even a poor value redemption can save you a chunk of money. However, remember that you won’t have those miles when spring and summer come around and you’re looking to book a vacation.
It’s still worth checking, though, not only to keep cash in your pocket but also because there are sometimes good premium cabin awards available (since there’s virtually no business travel during holiday weeks). Additionally, miles can be your fallback plan while you look for something better since many U.S. programs now allow free changes or cancellations on awards, at least, up until a certain point.
For Capital One products listed on this page, some of the above benefits are provided by Visa® or Mastercard® and may vary by product. See the respective Guide to Benefits for details, as terms and exclusions apply
If you’re thinking of flying for Christmas or New Year’s, act fast.
You may have waited until the weather got a bit cooler to start planning your holiday travel, but there are still some decent options available. However, if you want to avoid the worst fares, booking all your holiday travel early would've been your best bet this year.
While you're at it, don’t forget to also book flexible car rentals and hotel reservations, if needed.
Read more on booking holiday travel: