How to get the best deals on flights for Thanksgiving and Christmas

A traveler catches up on some sleep while waiting for a flight at Orlando International Airport, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018, before the start of the Thanksgiving holiday. (Photo: AP Photo/John Raoux)

Instead of sugarplums, holiday travel usually evokes visions of pricey airfare, crowded airports and delayed flights for those traveling “over the river and through the wood to grandmother’s house” for the holidays.

But here’s one bright spot: Airfare for the 2019 holiday season is the lowest it has been in three years, according to a recent Hopper study.

To really maximize your savings, you have to know when to book your flight. Yahoo Finance gathered the best ways to avoid air travel stress and mitigate the financial strain commonly felt during the holidays.

Machines clear snow off the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport in New York, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. (Photo: AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Thanksgiving

What will it cost? Airlines operate on supply and demand, and holiday air travel means high demand and high prices. When it comes to Thanksgiving this year, consider anything under $300 a good deal. The average round-trip domestic airfare for Thanksgiving is $294 and that’s down 3.9% this year, according to Hopper.

When to buy? Halloween is the deadline for the best fare deals. But if you’re a known procrastinator or your holiday destination wasn’t finalized until later, consider Thursday, Nov. 7, as the last possible day to find good pricing. You can expect to see a $10 or more spike every day for the three weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, which falls on Nov. 28 this year.

When to fly? For early birds who want to avoid crowds and pricey fares, flying Monday, Nov. 25, is the best option for travelers. But if arriving at your destination three days in advance of Thursday’s main event isn’t an option, departing on Thanksgiving Day is the next best cost-effective play.

Travelers line up for a security checkpoint at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018, in New York. (Photo: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Christmas

What will it cost? Average round-trip domestic airfare for Christmas is estimated to decrease 9.2% this year to $377 — the lowest price in the last three years, Hopper found.

When to buy? If your holiday plans require flights for Thanksgiving and Christmas, keep the momentum going and book at once – ideally before Halloween to get the best deals. If booking your Christmas plans two months in advance isn’t possible, the last day for flight deals is Dec. 8. After that, prices are expected to climb by $5 per day in the run-up to Christmas Day.

When to fly? The calendar plays in everyone’s favor this year because Christmas Eve and Christmas Day fall on two of the cheapest departure days: Tuesday and Wednesday. Those flying out on Dec. 24 and 25 will save over 30% compared with travelers who depart the weekend before the holiday.

Last-minute Christmas shoppers are reflected in a store's window as they walk through Chicago's Loop Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014, in Chicago. (Photo: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Don’t go into debt on holiday travel

The holidays are a wonderful time of year, but the season does come with its fair share of logistical and financial challenges. Over a quarter of Americans expect to go into debt this holiday season, according to a recent survey by Credit Karma.

Besides gift buying and holiday grocery-shopping, 1 in 5 say holiday travel will contribute to their holiday debt. Help manage your holiday travel spending with a few tips to keep costs down.

Consider alternate airports: When scanning for airfares, don’t commit to a single airport. If you live within a commutable distance to a major hub, broaden your search to include all of a region’s airports.

But don’t let a marginally cheaper price cloud your judgment. Calculate how much your transportation and parking will cost at the alternate airport. If you’re roughly breaking even, it’s probably not worth it.

Mail gifts ahead of time: Don’t let oversized presents for family cramp your minimalist travel style. Avoid additional baggage fees by shipping your gifts in advance, especially if you can get free shipping – which is commonly offered online during the holidays.

To that end, pay the premium to get gifts wrapped to avoid schlepping paper, tape, scissors and ribbon on your flight.

A FedEx delivery person wheels a cart full of packages down 5th Avenue in New York. Some people may want to ship packages instead of checking them on flights. (REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

Consider travel insurance: It might appear counterintuitive to spend more money when you’re trying to save this holiday season, but the unpredictability of November and December weather can derail even the best laid holiday travel plans.

When booking your ticket, spending a couple of extra bucks on travel insurance can save you if you get sick and can’t travel or your trip is canceled. You may even get a refund on a non-refundable flight. Always check the fine print first to see what’s covered.

Several travel credit cards also offer trip insurance, so check those details first before buying a separate policy.

Fly early: Airport delays have a domino effect, and travelers with connecting flights are the ones who get pinched. Timing your flight right may be the best way to avoid travel delays and missed connections altogether.

Flights departing first thing in the morning have the best chance of an on-time takeoff, according to Travelzoo. The chance of delay increases for later flights. Fliers traveling in the late afternoon can expect an average delay of at least 15 minutes.

Start tracking prices now: Travel fares will change more than 100 times between now and the holidays, according to Hopper. Set alerts through online fare trackers like Hopper, Google Flights, AirfareWatchdog and Skyscanner to monitor prices and know when to pull the trigger to get the best deal.

Stephanie is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @SJAsymkos.

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