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thanksgiving travel forecast

The Cheapest Time to Buy Holiday and Thanksgiving Flights for 2019

When do you find the lowest fares for Thanksgiving and December holiday travel? Right now, says the latest data from Hipmunk, derived from analysis of historical buying patterns. Specifically, you can find the lowest fares for both Thanksgiving flights and the winter holidays during the first week of September. But don’t give up if you miss that week:

  • Thanksgiving flights are relatively cheap for the weeks of September 9 and 16 and again the weeks of November 4, 11, and 18.
  • Christmas fares are relatively low again the weeks of October 6, November 18, and, surprisingly, the weeks of December 2, 9, and 16.

Why It Matters More This Year

These findings are in general agreement with reports from other sources for previous years: Your best bet is to buy about three to four months in advance. But buying early might be a particularly good idea this year: Airlines flying the 737 MAX will probably not have their full availability for the holidays so the entire system will have fewer available seats than airlines had planned. Hipmunk mined its purchase data to develop figures for average round-trip coach airfares for domestic travel.

When to Buy Thanksgiving Flights: The Details

Based on past data, Hipmunk found the lowest average Thanksgiving flights, at $417, for the week of September 2. But fares remained in the range of $425 to $440 through the first week of October, and dropped again to around $425 the first three weeks of November. Somewhat oddly, the worst week for low fares was October 14, at $476, and they rose again, to $465, the week of November 25.

When to Buy Holiday Season Flights: The Details

Christmastime fares seem to be more volatile, with larger week-to-week swings. No other time of year came even close to the average $389 fares found the week of September 2. The week of October 7 was next best, at around $408, with further drops to about $420 the week of November 18 and $450 to $470 the weeks of December 2, 9, and 16. You’ve already missed the worst week in the data base, when the average fares were around $490—even higher than last-minute—although the last minute average was almost as bad, at $480 during the week of December 23. And the weeks of October 21 through November 11 were also bad, with average fares ranging between $470 and $480.

The take-away is that your risk is lowest if you buy early. But if you’re willing to risk a small fare hike to wait for a great promotional fare, you can afford to delay buying your tickets for several weeks. As always, the best recommendation is: “When you find a good fare, pounce.”

When to Travel; When Not to Travel

Hipmunk also did a comprehensive breakdown of average fares for the mix of feasible departure and return days. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, conventional wisdom holds that the best times to travel are on the Thanksgiving Day Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and that the worst days to travel are the Wednesday before and Sunday after the holiday. Hipmunk’s figures say that’s only half right. Sure enough, the three highest fares were on trips returning on Sunday. As expected, the Wednesday-Sunday trip topped the list. But for some strange reason, fares for a trip leaving on Wednesday and returning Friday were near the lowest.

The trip with the lowest average fares was leaving Thursday and returning on Friday, at $307. But other low-fare options included Monday-Friday, Tuesday-Friday, and Thursday-Saturday, at $310 to $323. The three worst trips were Wednesday-Sunday, at $483, Tuesday-Sunday at $459, and Monday-Sunday at $456. Fares varied narrowly from $395 to $420 for other date combinations.

With a midweek Christmas this year, there are no obvious weekend peaks. Still, the conventional worst-trip dates, Saturday, December 21 to Sunday, December 29, showed a top fare average of $547. The best trip by far, at $247, was leaving Christmas Day, December 25, and returning the next day. Next best was a big jump up, to $322 for Tuesday to Friday, followed by Christmas Day to Sunday, at $335. Other bad trips were Sunday to Sunday, at $507, and Saturday to Friday, at $491. Hipmunk did not extend its coverage to the following New Year’s week, but presumably fares are high on the Sunday following.

The conventional take-aways here for major holidays are:

  • The lowest fares usually involve traveling on the holiday, itself—an obvious case, because those are the days travelers want to be where they’re going.
  • The highest fares usually involve returning on the Sunday following the holiday—another obvious finding, given that most people want to maximize their vacation time but need get back for work or school on Mondays.

Fare differentials for other dates generally cluster in a narrow range between the maximum dates. Beyond avoiding the worst dates if you can, you’re probably better off timing your trip to meet your best convenience rather than shaving a few bucks off airfares. For more information, see The 12 Best and Worst Days for Holiday Travel This Year.

What to Wear on Your Next Flight

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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