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7 Mistakes to Avoid When Booking Holiday Travel

Sept. 23, 2018
6 min read
Christmas holidays travelers airport
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Every fall, just as the peak summer travel season is winding down, you start to hear an awful lot about holiday travel plans.

Yes, even though it’s still a balmy 75 degrees outside, it’s time to start making arrangements to visit family for Thanksgiving dinner; to fly home (or as far away from home as possible) for the December holidays and to figure out exactly where on Earth you want to ring in the New Year.

This week, the farecasting app Hopper announced its holiday booking and price predictions, suggesting that travelers should book holiday flights before Halloween. Meanwhile, the travel booking site Hipmunk reported that Thanksgiving travel should be booked the first week of October, while Christmastime flights should be booked the week of Oct. 15.

In late August, Google also debuted two new features to help travelers find the best possible deals on holiday flights.

Basically, there’s plenty of advice in the ether about what travelers should do when making holiday travel arrangements. And still, it’s all too easy to forget when to book which holiday trip. (Or, if you’re anything like me, deciding where to go for the holidays becomes so overwhelming and paralyzing, you end up going nowhere, doing nothing at all.)

To help you dodge the most common pitfalls of holiday travel, we turned to the experts to find out exactly which mistakes you should avoid making to have a flawless travel experience this year.

Mistake 1: Being inflexible with travel plans

"Thanksgiving travel is so hectic — not only is it a short holiday, but it's also the most-traveled holiday in the US. As such, people can feel resigned to paying high prices, but there are some really easy ways you can minimize damage to your wallet, besides not booking last-minute,” Hipmunk content manager Kelly Soderlund told TPG. “If you're flying into a metropolitan area that's served by more than one airport, be sure to search multiple airport codes, which [can] save up to 30%."

Soderlund researched the most expensive airports to fly into on a domestic flight for Thanksgiving, and isolated nearby alternatives where travelers could score big savings. According to the report, travelers can save 12% by flying into Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) rather than Washington Dulles International (IAD) or Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) this Thanksgiving. If your travels take you to the New York City area? Skip Newark Liberty International (EWR) and John F. Kennedy International (JFK) in favor of LaGuardia (LGA), which can yield 31% savings.

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Mistake 2: Booking holidays in chronological order

“One of the most common mistakes people make is simply not booking their flights at the right time,” Hopper’s chief data scientist, Patrick Surry, told TPG. “Flight prices for Christmas tend to rise more steadily than for Thanksgiving,” he explained. “…That means you can procrastinate longer with Thanksgiving flights, but you should have your Christmas plans settled much earlier if you want to get the best deal.”

Mistake 3: Flying on the most popular travel days

In addition to massive airport crowds, flying at the same time as everyone else can cost you a serious deal. Surry pointed out that “the cheapest days to travel are on the holidays themselves.” And Hipmunk’s Soderlund agreed. “It may not be ideal," Soderlund said, "but flying on the holiday itself is often the least expensive and the least busy.”

Mistake 4: Using the wrong credit card

At a time when flight delays and cancelations are far from uncommon, travelers should be prepared for the worst. Keep a disruption from ruining your holiday by purchasing at least part of your trip with a premium travel rewards credit card that offers trip protection.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve may be the best option for most travelers. In addition to rewarding 3x points for all travel purchases (excluding $300 travel credit), travelers will receive up to $500 per ticket for delays of more than six hours; up to $100 per day for up to five days if luggage is delayed more than six hours; and trip cancelation and interruption coverage up to $10,000 per trip.

The Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard offers similar protections, including up to $500 per trip for delays of more than three hours; trip cancelation and interruption coverage up to $5,000 per trip; and up to $500 if bags are more than three hours late.

Mistake 5: Packing more than you need

Overpacking for any trip can cost you, but during the frantic and already-expensive holiday season, it can tip flight costs well beyond your budget. One way to avoid paying more for a ticket is to opt for a no-frills fare — which may be a solid option for truly minimalist packers. "If you don't need to check luggage," Soderlund said, "consider flying basic economy."

But if this isn't you — and be honest if it's not — underestimating how much you're going to pack or bringing too many tacky Christmas sweaters can really add up. "Make sure you're reviewing the fine print so that you don't get stuck with a bad surprise once you're already at the airport," Surry said of those same basic economy fares. And if you need to pay to check a bag, do so in advance. Bag fees can cost much more when you're at the check-in desk or gate.

Mistake 6: Forgetting to set an airfare alert

If you know precisely when and where you want to travel this holiday season, set airfare alerts with your preferred tracking or booking site, such as Hopper or Airfarewatchdog. Google Flights can also “track prices," while Skyscanner will deliver “price alerts.” That way, you don’t have to constantly watch the calendar or refresh flight booking sites to know when the best price for your specific route has arrived.

Mistake 7: Waiting too long to book

In addition to missing ideal booking windows for prices, waiting too long to make reservations for peak holiday travel dates can leave you with no flight at all. “When I first moved to New York City, my mom sent me money for a plane ticket home for Thanksgiving,” TPG editor Jane Frye said. "But I waited too long to buy the ticket and had to get a Greyhound instead. It took more than 24 hours to get from New York City to Ohio.”

And whatever you do, once your bookings are locked in, do not miss your flight. "You should take extra care to give yourself more time and avoid missing your flight [during the holidays]," Surry said. "Planes tend to be full — sometimes overbooked — and therefore much more difficult to be rebooked on during the holidays."

Featured image by Photo by Mikhail Starodubov/Shutterstock