Passengers traveling during the holiday season at Pittsburgh International Airport in December 2018. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Flying for the Holidays? Buy Your Ticket Now

Think “October.” Picturing a pumpkin? Consider adding turkey and candy canes to that image.

That’s because with rare and possibly inconvenient exceptions, the best airfares for Thanksgiving and Christmas travel are nearly certain to vanish at the end of the month, according to industry experts and travel websites.

Most travelers book flights for Thanksgiving 28 to 60 days before the holiday, according to AAA. The average domestic airfare for Thanksgiving was $491, as of Oct. 11. Christmas fares averaged $550.

Holiday airfares usually cost 20 to 30 percent more than what’s considered normal during the rest of the year, said Bijan Vasigh, professor of economics and finance at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, and an expert on aviation economics.

AAA’s analysis found travelers can sometimes find slightly lower prices a week or two before the holiday, but seat availability is limited. Last-minute deals for those who wait until a week or two before departure might require travel at inconvenient times or under less-than-ideal circumstances, Vasigh said.

“Don’t count on last-minute deals. Airlines track everything up to the second,” Vasigh said.

Airlines set holiday airfares the same way they do the rest of the year, Vasigh said. Prices continuously adjust — sometimes in a matter of minutes – as a response to real-time supply and demand.

Holidays at a premium

AAA expects all holiday travel to be up this year, just as it was last year.

“Gas prices are relatively cheap. The economy is strong. That could lead to another record travel year,” said Jim Garrity, a Pittsburgh-based AAA spokesman.

Last year, 30.6 million passengers traveled by air in the country during the 12-day Thanksgiving holiday period, up from an estimated 29 million passengers the year before, according to Airlines for America, a U.S. airline trade organization.

It was the highest Thanksgiving travel volume since 2005, both for air and automobile travel, according to AAA.

Family is the draw for most travelers, said Bryan Dietz, vice president of air service development for the Allegheny County Airport Authority, which operates Pittsburgh International Airport.

“We get lots of people coming to Pittsburgh to visit family at both Thanksgiving and Christmas,” he said.

At Christmas, when many people have more vacation time than at Thanksgiving, Florida is an increasingly popular destination, Dietz said.

Best days to fly

Travelers with more flexibility are likely to get the best holiday deals, and moving a travel date by just one day can substantially lower airfares. According to AAA, the Monday before Thanksgiving has the lowest average flight price. Thanksgiving Day also has good deals.

According to Airlines for America, the busiest and most expensive Thanksgiving travel days are Sunday, Dec. 1; Wednesday, Nov. 27; and Friday, Nov. 22.

For Christmas, which falls on a Wednesday this year, it’s best to avoid travel the weekend before the holiday.

“If you’re flexible and can travel on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day morning, you’re going to probably find much better deals,” Vasigh said.

Many travelers opt to travel after the Christmas holiday leading up to New Year’s. They pay a premium to do so. Dec. 26 has the highest average ticket price of the week at $692, according to AAA.

Alternative plans

For those willing to forgo tradition, Thanksgiving is a great time for international travel. “Prices are relatively low compared to the peak seasons of summer and Christmas,” Lina Corwin, a travel expert at Hopper, a travel app, told Travel + Leisure magazine.

Roundtrip fares from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to destinations such as Rome, Madrid and Copenhagen have been under $337.

Another money saver is to just pick alternative holiday dates. For example, Paul Hendley of Queens, N.Y., will celebrate Thanksgiving this year with his sister in Denver over Veterans Day weekend.

“Early Thanksgiving. It’s a way to avoid crowds. It’s becoming difficult for my 92-year-old mother to travel, so she likes avoiding busy airports,” he said.

Hendley’s roundtrip airfare from New York to Denver was $241.

“When I checked the cheapest flight over Thanksgiving weekend, it was $544,” he said.

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