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Cheapest places to travel for the holidays

September 17 2022
15 min read
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Finding cheap airfare around the holidays is never an easy task. Combine the overall higher airfare of 2022 with demand that, while tapering off a bit as we come out of the peak summer months, remains high. It's highly likely to surge again for travel in the days surrounding Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.

As TPG reported earlier this month, your best bet to find the cheapest airfare for the major year-end holidays is probably to book sooner rather than later.

But where can you go to avoid overpaying?

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Finding good holiday airfare

A JetBlue plane sits at the gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

One of the things we frequently discuss here at TPG is flexibility: The more flexible you are, the better chance you have to find a good deal. If you’re not tied down to a particular location, specific travel dates, time of day to travel or a particular airline, you’ve maximized your potential for finding a good deal.

Lack of flexibility is exactly what can make the holidays so difficult — and pricey.

Many Thanksgiving travelers, for instance, have schedules that dictate they must leave during the afternoon or evening hours the Wednesday before, to go to a particular destination where their family lives. That doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room for alternative itinerary options.

“Most folks don’t associate Thanksgiving with cheap flights, but that’s because most people are traveling home to visit family,” Scott Keyes, founder of airfare-tracking site Scott’s Cheap Flights told TPG.

To the extent you can skirt those trends, though, you might be able to find better deals — and to some fairly desirable locations at that.

Related: Find cheap airfare using TPG's Deals page

Finding the cheapest places to travel for Thanksgiving

Travelers wait outside San Francisco International Airport (SFO) on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, 2021. DAVID PAUL MORRIS/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES

If flying overseas for Thanksgiving is something that’s never occurred to you, you’re certainly not alone.

After all, the thought of traveling to a country that doesn’t celebrate one of the most iconic American holidays may seem counterintuitive.

But that’s the whole point, here: It's outside the box.

“Thanksgiving is the hidden best week for international travel,” Keyes said. “All those people traveling domestically are, by definition, not traveling internationally.”

That means Thanksgiving prices for international flights don’t spike at the same rate domestic flights do, and may, in fact, be cheaper than usual.

It’s part of an effort, Keyes said, to make sure airlines fill the planes that are traveling internationally.

Related: Want to skip Thanksgiving? 11 reasons to visit Europe instead

Now, to get your money’s worth and — not to mention the cheapest prices — you may want to take an additional day or two off of work on the front or back end of the holiday period. It could be a great option as you consider Thanksgiving travel.

Here’s some of what we found.

New York travelers: Italy

The Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum. JULIAN ELLIOTT PHOTOGRAPHY/STONE/GETTY IMAGES

Keyes specifically suggests Italy as an “incredible place” to visit over Thanksgiving. He points to cheap fares out of many U.S. cities, and the start of Christmas markets in the country prior to costs rising in December.

There have been a lot of cheap options on flights to Europe of late aboard Portuguese carrier TAP Portugal, which is part of the Star Alliance. With few exceptions, that means you’ll end up making a stop in Lisbon. Double check to make sure it’s not a long layover (unless you’d like to see a second city for the price of one) but there are also some fairly convenient itineraries, albeit with a connection.

For New York travelers, you can depart late Monday night, Thanksgiving week, from Newark/Liberty International Airport (EWR). Arriving in Lisbon late morning Tuesday, you’ll have three hours before the final leg of your trip to Rome.

It’s a bit longer layover, of four-plus hours in Lisbon on the return trip the Tuesday after Thanksgiving.

GOOGLE.COM/FLIGHTS

I also found departures on Thanksgiving night aboard Aer Lingus (with a brief stop in Dublin) and with a Tuesday-after-Thanksgiving return for $484.

San Francisco travelers: Lisbon, Portugal

In addition to taking advantage of the fares offered by the Lisbon-based carriers on your way to another city in Europe, you might also consider traveling to Portugal itself.

It appears some of TAP’s fares have generally driven down fares to Lisbon, and not just from the U.S. East Coast, but also from the West Coast.

A good option for travelers who have to work through the Wednesday leading into Thanksgiving — or at least that morning — is the Sky Team/Flying Blue partners itinerary below. You’ll depart mid-afternoon on Wednesday aboard an Air France Boeing 777 en route to Paris. After a two-plus hour connection in Paris Thursday, you’ll continue on to Lisbon, arriving mid-afternoon.

GOOGLE.COM/FLIGHTS

On the return trip, there’s an opportunity to take advantage of seeing two cities for the price of one. Departing mid-afternoon Monday, you’ll arrive around dinnertime in Amsterdam. This could give you a chance to have some dinner in the city, before a late-morning departure on KLM Tuesday for the 11-hour haul aboard a Boeing 787 back to San Francisco

The round-trip goes for $385, economy.

Of course, it's worth watching how conditions proceed this fall at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport (AMS) after chaos this summer and recently. However, because Thanksgiving in the U.S. does not coincide with a major holiday in the Netherlands, the airport likely won't see peak demand.

Washington, DC, travelers: Dublin

How about an easier itinerary? There are plenty of options to Europe out of Dulles International Airport (IAD).

For $383 round trip, you depart Monday evening before Thanksgiving, flying nonstop aboard Aer Lingus to the carrier’s home city, Dublin. The nonstop return flight is the Tuesday after the holiday.

GOOGLE.COM/FLIGHTS

Dublin — and, indeed Rome and Lisbon — may not be the type of destinations you’d typically associate with Thanksgiving, but, hey, it’s different.

“If you can stomach skipping Thanksgiving with the family one year, you can fly to Europe for the same price it’d cost to fly to the Midwest,” Keyes said. “Tell your family about the fares and bring them along for a truly unique Thanksgiving overseas.”

What constitutes a good deal?

Defining which cities are offering good deals to visit this holiday season within the U.S. isn’t an exact science. This is because while it may be relatively inexpensive to visit a destination from one U.S. city, prices could be exorbitant if you’re traveling from somewhere else.

It’s also hard to define exactly what a good price is in 2022 because the measuring stick has changed so many times, from the major price spikes we saw during the first half of the year to the slight cooling of upward airfare trends late in the summer, but with pretty lofty projections for what holiday travelers will pay this year.

That being said, one unscientific approach could be to look at average airfares for the holidays and to see if you can find round-trip prices that come in well below that mark.

Booking app Hopper projects average domestic Thanksgiving airfare at $356 round trip, up 41% compared to 2021, and average domestic Christmas airfare at a whopping $467, up 37% from a year ago.

So, certainly, it would be ideal to find prices that come in well below both marks.

Finding the cheapest places to travel for Christmas

An airport decorated for Christmas. VISIONKICK/ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES

If there’s still hope of finding some decent deals for Thanksgiving, it’s getting harder to say the same about the end-of-year holidays.

“At this point, it’s increasingly difficult to get cheap Christmas fares,” Keyes said. “They were available in June and July, far less in September.”

I searched domestic and Mexico/Caribbean flights in and out of a barrage of U.S. cities. One trend I found to be especially stark for this holiday season is that you can really, really save if you’re traveling between major airline hubs — it's often the case, but especially so around Christmas this year.

Where Hopper points to average domestic fares for Christmas at $467, flights between two hubs within the east or within the west can ensure you pay far below that mark, and in some cases not too much more than you might have paid over the summer for trips to those cities.

New York travelers: Flights to DC and Chicago

It’s not too often you’ll find round-trip airfare between New York and Washington, D.C. for less than $168 on one of the legacy U.S. carriers. So it’s particularly noteworthy to find options at that price level during peak Christmas travel time.

On this itinerary, you’ll depart just after the close of business on Friday, Dec. 23 from LaGuardia Airport (LGA) aboard United Airlines, landing at Dulles, outside D.C., by dinnertime. You have a variety of return options, including this late-night flight back on Dec. 28.

GOOGLE.COM/FLIGHTS

Oftentimes travelers moving between New York and D.C. might consider other options like the train. However, keep in mind that air travel still won the day in TPG’s race over the summer.

Flights to Chicago aren’t quite as cheap — but this $218 round trip is a reminder that you can save on holiday flights if you’re willing to travel on the holiday itself. Enjoy Christmas morning (and in fact, most of the day) in New York before departing from Newark/Liberty International Airport (EWR) for O’Hare International Airport (ORD) just after 6:30 p.m. Christmas night. Return on Dec. 30 for the best fare. This itinerary is also on United.

GOOGLE.COM/FLIGHTS

Other East Coast and Midwest cities: Flights to New York

Just as flights from New York are trending far below holiday averages, so, too, are flights to the city. I found trips to New York beginning with a Christmas Eve departure — all on United — for $178 out of Atlanta, $165 out of the D.C. area and $218 out of Chicago

West Coast travelers: Flights between San Francisco/Los Angeles and Phoenix/Seattle

In the same way flights between key eastern hubs helps keep your trip cost well below domestic Christmas averages, the same could be said for flights between key western hubs.

Los Angeles travelers can fly to Phoenix mid-day on Christmas Day, with a morning return on New Year’s Eve for $198 aboard Delta Air Lines.

GOOGLE.COM/FLIGHTS

Los Angeles and San Francisco flyers can visit Seattle for $238 round trip between either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and the days leading up to New Year’s Eve. Those flights were on some combination of Alaska Airlines or Delta.

Finding the cheapest places to travel for New Year's

JOHN LAMPARSKI/GETTY IMAGES

There definitely appear to be more options available for New Year's travel than Christmas travel at the moment. But again, whether you can find a good price is really going to depend on your origin and destination cities.

Despite the spectacle of the ball dropping in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, flights in and out of New York to and from other east and Midwest hubs tended to be similar to what we mentioned for Christmas.

We also took note of some other options.

Nashville: Good prices from East Coast and Midwest cities

While New Year’s might not be the time you’d initially think of visiting Nashville, it’s looking to be a less expensive option than other U.S. cities for flights around New Year’s. If enjoying country music as 2022 winds down seems like something you’d enjoy, you can pay far less than you would for flights to many other destinations.

Depart on Dec. 31 and return on Jan. 3 for the best deals, including this $168 round-trip itinerary between JFK and Nashville on Delta.

GOOGLE.COM/FLIGHTS

Flights out of Chicago on those dates went for $148 aboard United.

GOOGLE.COM/FLIGHTS

We found good to decent deals out of D.C., Atlanta and Miami, too.

Denver: Moderate prices from West Coast

While you might not find $148 fares like the Chicago-to-Nashville itinerary, with domestic round-trip averages soaring far above $300 and $400 for the holidays, prices well below $300 to Denver could be a slightly more affordable option for New Year’s — with the potential to parlay this into a ski trip for the holiday and first couple days of 2023.

For instance, depart Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) early on Dec. 28, with a Jan. 3 return for $257 with United. The price comes in about $30 more out of San Francisco for the same travel dates.

GOOGLE.COM/FLIGHTS

Other holiday deals

There are also plenty of other options for 2022 holiday travel that might not follow a distinct trend but are worth exploring if they fit your schedule.

Keep in mind that these prices — along with all we’ve mentioned — are sure to fluctuate greatly in the coming days and weeks. If you see something you like, it’s a good idea to book it or find a way to at least put a hold on the fare.

New York to Turks and Caicos at New Year’s

While not the most impressive fares we’ve ever seen between New York and the beautiful Turks and Caicos Islands, $337 also isn’t the worst. It’s sure better than you’ll find to a lot of other tropical destinations around the holidays.

Depart Dec. 30 from LaGuardia, and continue on to Providenciales (PLS) after a two-plus hour stop in Charlotte. The layover is shorter on your return trip, on Jan. 4. Yes, you’ll need to request time off from work for the first few days of the new year for this itinerary.

GOOGLE.COM/FLIGHTS

Los Angeles to Salt Lake City for New Year’s

If Denver doesn’t appeal to you as a skiing option, here’s an alternative to put you in good proximity to options like Park City.

Depart LAX early on New Year’s Eve aboard Delta Air Lines and arrive at the carrier’s Salt Lake City (SLC) hub at 8:32 a.m. mountain time. You’ll fly back to Los Angeles late on Jan. 3.

GOOGLE.COM/FLIGHTS

D.C. to New Orleans at Christmas

If jazz music, gumbo and Christmas seem like a combination worth exploring, try this itinerary. You’ll depart Dulles late on Christmas Eve and arrive at New Orleans Louis Armstrong International Airport (MSY) just before 10:00 p.m.

Related: My stay at the Canopy by Hilton New Orleans Downtown

A return of Dec. 28 gets you the best price.

GOOGLE.COM/FLIGHTS

New York to South Florida at Thanksgiving

At $233, this round-trip price falls nearly $130 below Hopper’s domestic Thanksgiving round-trip average.

Flying on JetBlue, you’ll leave early on Tuesday leading into the holiday from JFK, arriving in Fort Lauderdale mid-morning. The return flight on the Monday after Thanksgiving gets you back to New York almost in time for work.

GOOGLE.COM/FLIGHTS

Bottom line

Holiday travelers wait in line in Atlanta, Dec. 2021. BLOOMBERG/CONTRIBUTOR/GETTY IMAGES

If airfare in 2022 has taught us anything, it’s that prices will fluctuate and your best bet to secure a deal is to lock it in when you see it.

You may not find a $150 transcontinental flight at Christmas. However, thinking a bit outside the box on your destinations — particularly at Thanksgiving — and using tools like Google Flights to find which departure and return dates get you the best price could go a long way toward saving you money on holiday travel this year.

Featured photo by ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

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