8 Insider Tips for Finding Cheap Holiday Flights (Hint: Book Soon!)

People with luggage walking through the airport in Atlanta, GA during the holidays. anouchka/Getty Images

Ahhh, the holiday season. Backyard football games, elaborate dinners, family bonding, warm cookies… and insanely expensive flights.

Many people are excited to go home for the holidays, but no one’s excited to pay the price. Airlines know, however, that most people will pay whatever it costs — so they raise their fares exponentially. Though it doesn’t seem fair, it’s good business for them.

If you’re struggling to afford your tickets home, here are a few tricks of the trade that can help you get cheaper flights this holiday season:

1. Don’t wait

You probably already know this, but it bears repeating: buying your flights early can save you lots of money According to CheapAir.com’s annual airfare study, if you book between seven and 13 days ahead of time, you could end up paying $83 more and up to $208 more if you wait until the very last minute (as in six or less days in advance).

So if you plan on traveling for the holidays, now is the time to book those flights! According to Skyscanner, October is the best time to book both domestic and international holiday travel. If you plan on traveling for Thanksgiving, booking in September would have been your best bet, so you better book those flights now. And If you’re traveling for Christmas, be sure to book your flights before November 19.

2. Shop around for the best deal

For researching your flight options, I recommend using ITA Flight Matrix. It offers the most flexibility in terms of dates and airports, and will also show you a low fare calendar. You can’t purchase tickets on the site, but you can take the flight numbers and book directly with the airline — (which is usually the better method anyway).

3. Shop for tickets in a private browser

For several years, there have been rumors that airlines use cookies to see when you’ve searched for a certain flight before. If you have, they assume you’re serious about purchasing the ticket — and they jack up the prices. This has never been officially confirmed, though, and some say it’s a myth.

Whether it’s true, it doesn’t hurt to shop for tickets in a private browser (like Chrome Incognito) so no cookies are stored. You can also search for tickets normally, then clear your cookies before purchasing, or just use a friend’s computer when it’s time to buy.

4. Check fares at nearby airports

Just because an airport is the biggest doesn’t mean it’s the cheapest. Check alternate departure and arrival airports to try and score a deal. You can even fly into one airport and out of another.

Flying to Atlanta to see family, but only finding super-expensive fares? Try Chattanooga, Tennessee; it’s only 123 miles away. If you need ideas, check out this handy list of alternate airports from Johnny Jet.

5. Avoid flying on Sundays at all costs

If you want to save money, don’t fly on a Sunday. This rule applies all year long — but especially around the holidays.

If you’re supposed to work on Monday, ask your employer if you can work remotely or take a day of unpaid leave or vacation. You may miss out on some income, but the money you’ll save on your ticket should more than make up for it — not to mention, you’ll have one extra day with your loved ones.

6. Purchase your tickets on Sunday

While Sunday may be the worst day to fly, it may also be the best day to buy.

According to Skyscanner, you’ll find the most savings for both domestic and international flights if you purchase tickets on a Sunday and avoid booking on Thursdays and Fridays. Skyscanner also suggest booking your flight around 5 a.m. for the most savings and avoid booking between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.

7. Fly on the holiday itself

Nobody wants to fly on Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s Day — which is why you can sometimes score great deals by doing so.

And flying on the holiday doesn’t have to mean missing all the festivities. One option would be to leave super early in the morning, arriving just in time for turkey. Another would be to coordinate with your family to celebrate the day after. If everyone agrees to do so, then you all can enjoy savings and less-crowded airports without missing a thing. Here’s a calendar from CheapAir showing the best and worst days to fly around the holidays.

8. Don’t forget about baggage fees

Airlines started increasing baggage fees this year, so be sure to keep these fees in mind when booking your holiday flights. JetBlue increased baggage fees at the end of August, and United matched the increase a week later.

If you can, try booking through Southwest; you can check two bags for free. Or try traveling light and use these tips to fit everything into one bag.

If you follow all of these tips, you’ve got a shot at finding a reasonable, if not cheap, holiday fare… Now just keep your fingers crossed for good weather!

Susan Shain, a contributor to The Penny Hoarder, is always seeking adventure on a budget. Visit her blog at susanshain.com, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.