This is how much it will cost to fly during the holidays this winter

Nov 20, 2020

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Editor’s note: While TPG will continue to provide information about travel pricing and tips for traveling as safely as possible, do note that the CDC is recommending against holiday travel this year. 

Normally, the holidays are one of the busiest times of year to travel, when millions of Americans jet off to visit family members or take a much-needed vacation. Of course, this year is a bit different, but even in 2020, the winter holidays can be an expensive time for leisure travelers to fly.

Related: What do travelers want this holiday season? Safety, cheap flights and flexibility

We wanted to know if, despite the dip in demand this year, travelers who are flying should still expect to spend a premium on holiday flights.

To determine just how much it will cost to travel during the 2020 holiday season — and the best dates to fly if you want a better deal — TPG pulled cash and award pricing for more than 90 routes with all of the major U.S. airlines during four popular winter holiday dates: Nov. 24 to 28; Nov. 25 to 29; Dec. 19 to 26; and Dec. 23, 2020, to Jan. 2, 2021.

Related: 11 things you absolutely must know if you travel this holiday season

What we discovered were some of the biggest airfare pricing trends of the season — and which airlines offer the best deals for both cash and award flights.

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In This Post

The average cost of a holiday flight in 2020

Southwest planes at MDW from the sky
(Photo by marchello74 /

This holiday season, an average domestic round-trip ticket in our study costs $345.50 across all airlines and routes. The average cost of an award ticket was 36,442 miles when booking flights through a carrier’s in-house loyalty program. When calculating value (cash price ÷ award price), this comes out to just 0.95 cents per point/mile — which is quite a bit lower than any individual currency in our most recent valuations.

During our search, we found that the best time to fly domestically on a cash ticket is Dec. 19 to 26 (about $312 on average per round-trip ticket), narrowly beating out Nov 24. to 28 by just 3 cents. This is also the cheapest time to buy award fares, with the average domestic round-trip requiring 31,711 miles to book.

However, the best value came when you travel Dec. 23, 2020 through Jan. 2, 2021. In fact, this was the only set of dates where the value surpassed 1 cent per point/mile.

Just remember, dates near Thanksgiving could skew more expensive because we pulled this pricing closer to the date of departure. Most of the fares were pulled the week of Nov. 11. That said, travelers are increasingly booking last-minute flights due to the rapidly-changing coronavirus restrictions around the U.S., so this is still an accurate look at real-world pricing.

Date range Average cash cost
Average mileage cost (Value)
Nov. 24 to 28 $312.19 34,765 (0.9 cents)
Nov. 25 to 29 $369.31 40,956 (0.9 cents)
Dec. 19 to 26 $312.16 31,711 (0.98 cents)
Dec. 23, 2020, to Jan. 2, 2021 $388.33 38,337 (1.01 cents)
Average $345.50 36,442 (0.95 cents)

For international flights, the average round-trip ticket in our study costs $960, or 61,923 miles, based on prices for one transatlantic flight, one transpacific flight, two flights to the Caribbean and one flight to Mexico with American, Delta and United, plus prices for two flights to the Caribbean and one flight to Mexico operated by Southwest and JetBlue. This gives you an average value of 1.55 cents per point/mile — a major increase over domestic award tickets.

If you plan on flying on a paid ticket, the best holiday deals can be found between Dec. 19 to 26. Mileage tickets, on the other hand, are generally cheapest and offer the best value when flying between Nov. 24 and 28.

Date range Average cash cost Average mileage cost (Value)
Nov. 24 to 28 $1,086 57,359 (1.89 cents)
Nov. 25 to 29 $907 62,182 (1.46 cents)
Dec. 19 to 26 $805 58,399 (1.38 cents)
Dec. 23, 2020, to Jan. 2, 2021 $1,042 69,750 (1.49 cents)
Average $960 61,923 (1.55 cents)

Should I pay with miles or cash this holiday season?

The average value you’ll get for international flights in our tests is 1.55 cents per mile, while domestic flights average just 0.95 cents per mile.

This means buying international flights with miles is a good deal when considering TPG’s recent valuations of most domestic loyalty programs.

From Dec. 19 to 26, for example, you can fly from New York-JFK to Cancun (CUN) for just 17,400 TrueBlue points, whereas the cash ticket would be $256.

In fact, select flights outside the U.S. were the only situations where you’d get more value using your points and miles than you would compared to our valuations. We’ve highlighted those in the charts below in green, but here’s the list:

  • International flights on Southwest Airlines
  • Flights to Mexico on Delta Air Lines
  • American and Delta to Europe

As a result, you should seriously consider paying cash for most flights this holiday season. Even though prices are steep, the relative value you’d get by using your miles

This is especially true when it comes to booking domestic flights. Consider one flight we found from Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to Los Angeles (LAX), departing Dec. 23, 2020 and returning Jan. 2, 2021. You could spend $190 or redeem 21,500 AAdvantage miles. The cash fare is a great deal, and you’d only get a value of 0.89 cents per mile with the award ticket. 

You may also be able to book cheap domestic flights at a better redemption rate through your credit card’s travel portal (such as the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal or Amex Travel) or find a better deal by transferring credit card points to an airline partner and booking at a lower rate than what’s offered by the airline. 

Of course, prices will vary depending on your travel dates and route.

Related: Making up for lost time: How I’m booking my biggest trip of 2021

Understanding the numbers

(Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

In early November, we pulled cash and award prices for nearly 100 popular airline routes: 60 domestic and 35 international, spanning multiple airlines (Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United) across four sets of round-trip travel dates covering Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year.

Cash prices were pulled from Google Flights, while award pricing was pulled directly from the carrier using its in-house loyalty program. This means Delta award pricing (for example) is reflective of how many Delta SkyMiles you’d need to redeem for a specific flight.

In all cases, we solely focused on nonstop flights and the cheapest, round-trip economy fare available on each date set for both cash and miles. We pulled both short-haul and transcontinental routes, spanning all of the major U.S. metropolitan regions.

For all charts that follow, note that the value is expressed in cents per point/mile. In addition, for the airline-specific charts, we’ll highlight when the value you’d get is equal to (or higher) than TPG’s most recent valuations.

Related: 8 ways to save money on holiday travel this year

The price of a domestic holiday flight

What it costs to fly to Florida for the holidays

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Florida is always a popular holiday destination for Americans. You’ll find the best cash deals when flying Nov. 24 to 28, while the best award ticket deals are available from Dec. 19 to 26. The most expensive time to travel is from Dec. 23 to Jan. 2, 2021.

This information is based on two flights from each carrier, one into Orlando (MCO) and one into either Miami (MIA) or Fort Lauderdale (FLL), originating at one of the airline’s domestic hubs.

Date range Average cash cost Average mileage cost (Value)
Nov. 24 to 28 $366.67 41,752 (0.88 cents)
Nov. 25 to 29 $484.67 54,669 (0.89 cents)
Dec. 19 to 26 $390.83 38,706 (1.01 cents)
Dec. 23, 2020, to Jan. 2, 2021 $553.08 51,155 (1.08 cents)
Average $448.81 46,570 (0.96 cents)

But, which airline should you choose?

Based on the data we pulled, Delta consistently offered the lowest-priced cash tickets (about $287 round-trip). And Southwest offers the best deal on round-trip award tickets, with an average price of 27,897 Rapid Rewards points — giving a value of nearly 1.3 cents per point.

Airline Average cash cost Average mileage cost (Value)
Alaska Airlines $846.50 75,000 (1.13 cents)
American Airlines $437.63 59,875 (0.73 cents)
Delta Air Lines $286.88 31,938 (0.9 cents)
JetBlue Airways $383.11 34,838 (1.1 cents)
Southwest Airlines $360.25 27,897 (1.29 cents)
United Airlines $371.38 49,875 (0.74 cents)

That said, it’s worth noting that none of these average values reach our most recent valuations. As a result, despite the high cash prices, it may be best to swipe a credit card for these flights, as your points or miles across all six airlines would likely get you more valuable redemptions on other dates.

Related: 9 must-have apps to survive the holiday travel season

What it costs to fly across the country for the holidays

(Photo by Darwin Fan/Getty Images)

Nearly all of the major U.S.airlines (excluding Southwest) operate nonstop, transcontinental routes from the New York City area to Los Angeles and San Francisco with upgraded service and premium aircraft — and New York to Los Angeles is by far the most popular of these routes.

Related: American Airlines’ most premier domestic route is finally back

You’ll find the best cash deal when flying between either Nov. 24 to 28 or Nov. 25 to 29 — both dates have an average cost of $329 round-trip. Nov. 24 to 28 is also your best bet for award tickets based on the absolute award prices. However, the value is just slightly higher for flights that depart on Dec. 23 and return on Jan. 2, 2021.

Note that Alaska Airlines is excluded from this section, as it’s not operating flights on this route for a handful of dates this winter.

Date range Average cash cost Average mileage cost (Value)
Nov. 24 to 28 $329.00 33,500 (0.98 cents)
Nov. 25 to 29 $329.00 36,275 (0.91 cents)
Dec. 19 to 26 $354.50 43,000 (0.82 cents)
Dec. 23, 2020, to Jan. 2, 2021 $580.25 58,625 (0.99 cents)
Average $398.19 42,850 (0.93 cents)

When you break out these flights by airline, American Airlines offers the best prices on cash fares and award tickets (about $356 or 30,000 miles on average, with an average value of 1.19 cents per AAdvantage mile). JetBlue is the second best airline for these award tickets, though it charges on average more than 7,000 additional TrueBlue points per round-trip ticket.

Airline Average cash cost Average mileage cost (Value)
American Airlines $356.00 30,000 (1.19 cents)
Delta Air Lines $480.75 66,500 (0.72 cents)
JetBlue Airways $402.25 37,025 (1.09 cents)
United Airlines $353.75 37,875 (0.93 cents)

Related: Comparing premium transcon flights in the age of coronavirus

Comparing short, medium and long flights

(Photo credit should read JASON REDMOND/AFP/Getty Images)
Trying to figure out the best way to book your short, medium and long flights?
Normally, we’d expect short-haul flights during the holidays to skyrocket in price, but there are great cash deals to be had on short flights of 500 miles or fewer this year.

Though the difference between medium- and long-haul domestic flights booked with miles is negligible (think: 34,946 versus 38,006 miles), long-haul flights are really the only domestic flights you’ll want to book with miles. You’ll get a value of 0.97 cents per mile on average for short-haul flights, and an even worse 0.93 cents per mile on medium-haul flights. But you’ll get a decent 1.3 cents per mile on long-haul award tickets during the holidays.

Length Average cash cost Average mileage cost
Short (500 miles of fewer one-way) $225.79 23,247 (0.97 cents)
Medium (500 to 1,200 miles one-way) $326.58 34,946 (0.93 cents)
Long-haul (1,200 miles or more one-way) $493.96 38,006 (1.3 cents)

Related: Using Avios for short-haul flights from Oneworld hubs

The price of an international holiday flight

International travel is tricky this year. Most countries are still closed to Americans, though some popular tourist destinations have reopened for tourism.

Related: Experts weigh in: When will we return to pre-pandemic travel numbers?

What it costs to fly to the Caribbean for the holidays

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

The Caribbean is the place to travel internationally in 2020. There are a number of countries in the region that have opened their doors to Americans, albeit with restrictions. U.S. airlines have since ramped up service to many of these destinations.

In terms of cash prices, your best bet for a Caribbean trip will be to fly between Nov. 24 to 28, and Dec.19 to 26 is still substantially cheaper than flights booked during the New Year. You’ll pay $610 round-trip, versus $972.

However, those flights that depart Dec. 23 and return Jan. 2, 2021 do offer the best value for your rewards — an average of 1.63 cents per point or mile.

Date range Average cash cost Average mileage cost (Value)
Nov. 24 to 28 $600 46,958 (1.28 cents)
Nov. 25 to 29 $677 48,622 (1.39 cents)
Dec. 19 to 26 $610 54,947 (1.11 cents)
Dec. 23, 2020, to Jan. 2, 2021 $972 59,708 (1.63 cents)
Average $718 52,749 (1.36 cents)

When breaking this out by carrier, you’ll find the best deals with Southwest Airlines, but it also has the most limited route network. This is based on the average mileage and cash cost for two Caribbean routes during the four different dates we considered.

Airline Average cash cost Average mileage cost (Value)
American Airlines $604 41,938 (1.44 cents)
Delta Air Lines $923 82,000 (1.13 cents)
JetBlue Airways $805 61,688 (1.3 cents)
Southwest Airlines $474 30,583 (1.55 cents)
United Airlines $714 52,438 (1.35 cents)

Related: Did the Bahamas reopen too quickly?

What it costs to fly to Mexico for the holidays

(Photo by arthur gonoretzky/Getty Images)

If you want to stay close to home but still travel abroad, it’s hard to beat Mexico. The country has reopened many regions to American tourists, and there’s a ton of airlift.

For a trip to Cancun (CUN), book flights between Dec. 19 and 26 (about $611 or 45,775 miles round-trip). It will cost about $200 or 20,000 miles more to fly during Thanksgiving.

Date range Average cash cost Average mileage cost (Value)
Nov. 24 to 28 $676 58,965 (1.15 cents)
Nov. 25 to 29 $810 69,108 (1.17 cents)
Dec. 19 to 26 $611 45,775 (1.33 cents)
Dec. 23, 2020, to Jan. 2, 2021 $694 51,537 (1.35 cents)
Average $718 52,749 (1.36 cents)

You’ll generally find the best mileage deals with Delta, which charges just 42,000 miles on the average round-trip ticket. Based on the cash prices of these flights, you’ll get a value of 1.64 cents per SkyMile — roughly 37% higher than our valuations.

On the other hand, American has the lowest average cash fares — despite being one of the most expensive airlines for award tickets. You’ll also want to stay away from Southwest if you’re looking for an inexpensive cash ticket.

Airline Average cash cost Average mileage cost (Value)
American Airlines $588 61,875 (0.95 cents)
Delta Air Lines $688 42,000 (1.64 cents)
JetBlue Airways $615 51,750 (1.19 cents)
Southwest Airlines $934 65,664 (1.42 cents)
United Airlines $427 51,125 (0.84 cents)

Related: Redeem points at these 9 family-friendly resorts in Cancun

What it costs to fly across the Atlantic for the holidays

(Photo by Alexander Spatari/Getty Images)

While Americans can travel to Europe, it’s quite limited. Right now, for example, travelers have to quarantine upon arrival to Ireland and the U.K. Still, if you’re crossing the pond for the holidays, here’s what it costs to fly from New York City to London-Heathrow (LHR) on American, Delta and United.

Related: TPG inside report: What it was like to visit Croatia during the COVID-19 pandemic

Fly in late December if you’re paying cash — it’s substantially cheaper than traveling during Thanksgiving. With award tickets, you’ll spend the fewest miles by spending New Year’s in Europe. However, the incredibly high prices for flights from Nov. 24 to 28 will give you outsized value for your points and miles

Date range Average cash cost Average mileage cost (Value)
Nov. 24 to 28 $2,777 68,667 (4.04 cents)
Nov. 25 to 29 $901 71,667 (1.26 cents)
Dec. 19 to 26 $825 65,833 (1.25 cents)
Dec. 23, 2020, to Jan. 2, 2021 $998 62,333 (1.6 cents)
Average $1,100 67,125 (1.64 cents)

When comparing the three legacy airlines, both American and Delta offer some significant value for their award tickets — with 2.46 and 2.54 cents of value per mile (respectively). And while United has the most inexpensive cash fares, it offers comparatively poorer value for booking those flights using MileagePlus miles.

Airline Average cash cost Average mileage cost
American Airlines $1,290 52,500 (2.46 cents)
Delta Air Lines $1,440 56,625 (2.54 cents)
United Airlines $1,117 92,250 (1.21 cents)

Related: The U.S. could establish a travel corridor with London by the end of the year

Which airline has the best holiday pricing?

(Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

There are many factors to consider when choosing an airline to fly with during the 2020 holiday season — one being price.

Using four routes each airline operates — Los Angeles (LAX) to Las Vegas (LAS); Chicago (ORD or MDW) to New York City (LGA or JFK); Boston (BOS) to Miami (MIA or FLL); and one transcontinental flight — it’s clear JetBlue and Southwest offer the most affordable award tickets.

Surprisingly, these are the most expensive airlines to fly if you’re paying cash, even though both price awards tickets based on the cash fare. American, Delta and United price award tickets dynamically using internal figures. (American publishes an award chart, but offers Web Special and AAnytime award tickets that vary in cost.)

You’ll find the cheapest cash flights on American Airlines and United.

Airline Average cash cost Average mileage cost (Value)
American Airlines $269.00 29,813 (0.9 cents)
Delta Air Lines $295.38 39,094 (0.76 cents)
JetBlue Airways $296.88 25,388 (1.17 cents)
Southwest Airlines $351.06 25,551 (1.37 cents)
United Airlines $279.75 32,625 (0.86 cents)

For international flights operated by American, Delta and United, you’ll find the best cash deals on Delta. A round-trip ticket with Delta could save you more than $100, compared to American and United. American has the best mileage rates.

Airline Average cash cost Average mileage cost (Value)
American Airlines $1,114 53,525 (2.08 cents)
Delta Air Lines $1,007 93,150 (1.08 cents)
United Airlines $1,130 58,750 (1.92 cents)

Southwest and JetBlue have smaller international networks, mostly in North and Central America and the Caribbean. The pair have relatively similar pricing on these routes, but Southwest wins as the cheapest carrier on average.

Airline Average cash cost Average mileage cost
Southwest Airlines $627 42,276 (1.48 cents)
JetBlue $675 48,808 (1.38 cents)

Related: JetBlue to offer free COVID testing as it looks towards more travel returning in 2021

Bottom line

It’s an unusual year for holiday travel, but flights remain somewhat more expensive during this holiday season despite decreased demand. With that in mind, it helps to have points and miles at your disposal so you can fly without breaking the bank. However, our tests showed that using an airline’s own loyalty program during the holidays doesn’t always give as high of a return or mile as you may want, especially when booking close-in to travel. Sometimes, credit card points that are worth a fixed-cash value are better for booking those types of tickets.

Related: TPG beginner’s guide: Everything you need to know about points, miles, airlines and credit cards

But as always, your results may be different depending on your specific itinerary and travel dates, plus the type of miles you have stashed away.

Feature photo by aapsky/Shutterstock

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