While travel advice abounds for the best times to buy the most affordable holiday plane tickets, it’s hard to escape reality: Flying during some of the year’s busiest travel periods generally isn’t going to be cheap.
In this era of packed airplanes, smaller seats and fees for extra leg room, what airline is going to offer inexpensive fares around Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s? Common business sense dictates that high prices will follow high demand.
What are procrastinating travelers to do besides drive or take the train to get to their destinations? CNN checked with airfare experts on time-honored ways to dull the price pain.
Buy your tickets soon
If you haven’t purchased your plane tickets yet, it’s time to buy now.
“Holiday travelers should make their plans now and begin booking flights for Thanksgiving and Christmas as early as Wednesday, September 25, for the best deals and availability,” said Mark Jenkins, spokesman for AAA–The Auto Club Group, in a statement. “Knowing when to book and what days to fly can help travelers effectively manage their budget and avoid the crowd.”
Travelers booking between 28 to 60 days before Thanksgiving week – that’s between September 25 and October 27 – can get a good price ($491 on average), according to AAA.
If you want to arrive before the holiday, flying on Monday is the best choice. It has the lowest average ticket price ($486) prior to the holiday.
Actually flying on the holiday offers the lowest average price per ticket ($454) while the Tuesday ($521) and Wednesday ($527) before the holiday are pricey and the heaviest air travel days, AAA says. There’s also the chance that bad weather will ruin your holiday meal plans.
Christmas and New Year’s
Generally, Christmas and New Year’s function much like Thanksgiving: High demand, high prices. Again, off-peak flying is your friend.
While you’re booking Thanksgiving travel, you may as well book for Christmas and New Year’s. AAA says says booking between September 26 and October 25 is best for Christmas flight bookings, with lower than average prices ($551) compared with booking earlier.
Travelers who fly Christmas Eve enjoy the lightest travel day of the year, with the lowest average ticket prices ($527), says AAA.
But you better shop carefully for that return or a new flight for New Year’s, since December 26 has the week’s highest average ticket price ($692).
Sign up for alerts
Just like the rest of the year, many fares fluctuate during the run up to the holiday travel season, says Tracy Stewart, editor at airfare deal site Airfarewatchdog.com.
How do you know if the price of your route will go down before going up again? The site recommends that travelers sign up for fare alerts. You can get educated on the general cost of your flights, and you’ll get an email when fares drop.
“If you see a good fare, snag it,” says Stewart. “The one thing our data clearly shows is that if you wait until the last minute, you’re going to pay dearly.”
Look at alternate airports
The airport you use can make a difference on how much you spend.
Always look into optional airports – the New York/New Jersey area has five airports, and so does Los Angeles.
Houston and Chicago have two each. And remember to check Southwest.com in addition to Kayak or other search engines. (Not all airlines are on travel sites.)
On some supercompetitive routes (think Chicago-New York), there will always be “a few scattered seats and flight times that will go on sale,” he says.
Don’t forget to count the fees
Remember to factor in baggage fees, extra leg room fees and food purchases before booking flights. Airline credit card holders may get a free checked bag and other perks.
Make sure you consider your ground transportation costs as well, noting that public trains often whisk people faster into cities than private cars (think Washington, Atlanta, San Francisco) and Lyft and Uber fees can vary depending on when you book them.
Impact of the 737 Max
The grounding of the Boeing 737 Max may not have a huge impact because those planes aren’t a huge percentage of global capacity. But Hopper travel app economist Hayley Berg says it’s possible there could be less capacity and therefore, less carrier competition, on a particular route.
Check flight status: It’s easy enough to load up your airline and airport apps for your travel. You can spot weather delays and even rebook on some sites. (Keep a phone charger and extra battery pack handy to call your airline, too.)
Insurance: Travel insurance is a good deal if you’re worried about unpredictable winter weather or illness (read the fine print to see what’s covered).
Early birds: Delays are less likely early in the morning, but you also have more options if your early morning flight gets canceled. You may miss your sleep getting up extra early, but you may also miss the crowds and misery.
Delay a week: Orbitz also points out that fares – along with hotel rooms – often drop a lot the week after Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.
Presents: If you’re flying to see family, you could ship your presents instead of bringing them on the plane. That saves hassles and fees. (You can even wrap them at Grandma’s house.)
Go global: International airfares can be a good deal for Americans this time of year. So if your family is understanding about pushing Christmas to the spring, maybe a holiday vacation is in order.
CNN’s Forrest Brown contributed to this article.