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

A couple toast with champagne on an airplane.
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Finding cheap holiday flights just got a whole lot more challenging. As the airline industry continues to bounce back, flight prices are at record highs, just as families are looking for discount flights for Thanksgiving and Christmas. In fact, Thanksgiving airfare is up 25% this year — and Christmas airfare’s trending even higher.

Amid staffing shortages, increased travel demands and more frequent weather events, you’ll need to use every trick in the book to find cheap holiday flights and avoid delays and cancellations. Fortunately, we’re here to help.

10 Tips and Tricks for Finding Cheap Holiday Flights

If you’re struggling to afford your tickets home for the holidays, here are 10 tricks of the trade that can help you get cheaper flights this season.

1. Don’t Wait

Seriously, buy your tickets as early as possible. According to CheapAir.com’s annual airfare study, the sweet spot for domestic flights is 76 days before departure. That’s 12 days earlier than it was in 2021.

For the holidays, Cheap Air says it’s better to book even earlier. This year, travelers heading home for Thanksgiving should book their trips around mid-September. And if you’re traveling for Christmas, late September to mid-October is the ideal booking window.

Of course, not everyone knows their holiday plans so far in advance. While you’re statistically likely to get the best Thanksgiving flight deals in September and Christmas flight deals the following month, you can still find cheap holiday flights up to three weeks ahead of your departure date.

Once you hit that three-week pre-departure window, airlines will jack up the rates. At that point, you’re better off driving — or hitching a ride with Santa.

2. Shop Around for the Best Deal

For researching your flight options, don’t rely solely on the airlines’ websites. Use resources like Google Flights, Priceline, Momondo, ITA Flight Matrix, and Skyscanner to compare prices across different airlines.

Some of these resources merely compile the data but take you to the airline’s website to book directly. Others let you book through their third-party site. Exercise caution: It’s almost always safer and more reliable to book directly.

Pro Tip

Southwest Airlines often has cheap plane tickets, but it doesn’t let third-party sites display their fares. Before committing to a flight, compare it against the best option on Southwest.com.

3. Use a Flight Tracker

Routinely checking an app or your browser to see how flight prices have changed can be exhausting. If you don’t have the time or energy to check prices several times each day, let technology do it for you. Online flight trackers can send you alerts when prices drop for your preferred travel date, time and destination.

Many airlines and travel credit cards alike offer programs to lock in prices for a set number of days. So if you spot a great price on a holiday flight but need to confirm with the in-laws that it’s OK to show up a day early or fly into an airport an hour away, you might be able to freeze the price for a service charge.

A note on cookies (no, not Christmas cookies): For more than a decade, some have speculated that airlines would use cookies to track when you searched for a certain flight — and then jacked up the prices the next time you looked. But there is no evidence of this. Airlines and travel companies deny these claims, and most travel experts now agree that it’s untrue.

4. 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.

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.

A woman sleeps during a layover at the airport.
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5. Fly Early and Look for Layovers

Waking up for a 6 a.m. flight after a night of hitting the eggnog may not sound ideal, but early-morning flights are usually cheaper than flights in the late morning, afternoon and evening. Delays and cancellations are higher than ever in 2022, so booking an early flight also means you’ll have more opportunities to catch a new flight if your initial flight doesn’t work out.

Flying direct is also more expensive than a flight with one or more layovers. If you can stomach the thought of changing planes and sitting in another packed airport, you can shave some serious cash off your flight by opting for a layover. Just give yourself enough time between flights to account for delays!

Pro Tip

Don’t blow your money on food when you’re sitting at the airport. Use these 10 tips to save money on food while traveling.

6. 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.

If you need ideas, check out this handy list of alternate airports from Johnny Jet. Just make sure you have an affordable way to get to your family if you choose an airport that’s farther from your holiday destination.

7. Know When to Fly

If you want to save money, don’t fly on a Sunday. This rule applies all year long — but especially around the holidays. In general, if you fly on a Wednesday (the cheapest day to fly) instead of Sunday, you’ll save an average of $57 per airline ticket.

While the Wednesday and Sunday rule generally applies to air travel, there are some specific dates for the 2022 holiday season that CheapAir says will save you money — and some that will cost you much more:

To find cheap Thanksgiving flights in 2022:

  • Look at Tuesday or Wednesday as opposed to the weekend.
  • Travel on Thanksgiving to save $75 a ticket.
  • Consider Black Friday for $90 in savings per ticket.
  • Do not travel on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

To find cheap Christmas flights in 2022:

  • Try flying on Christmas Eve. It’s usually pricey, but 2022 prices are lower!
  • Don’t fly on Dec. 23 or 26; these are the most expensive dates for 2022.
  • Fly around the New Year (Dec. 29, 30 or 31 — or even on New Year’s Day).
  • Wait until the Tuesday after New Year’s for the biggest savings.
Pro Tip

It used to be that the best day to book your flight was Sunday or Tuesday, but that’s no longer the case. The date of your travel is important, but the day of the week you book it? Not so much.

8. Extend Your Trip

Extending your trip a day or two before or after the holiday weekend might yield cheaper holiday flights. For example, if you’re supposed to work on the Monday after Thanksgiving, ask your employer if you can work remotely or take a day of unpaid leave or vacation, then fly home Monday evening.

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.

9. Ship Your Presents to Avoid Baggage Fees

Airlines baggage fees have gone up, and they continue to add to the overall cost of traveling. If you’re flying in for Christmas, it may be easier to ship your family’s presents directly to them when online shopping. Ask your family to do the same with yours so you don’t have to worry about packing them to fly home.

Is it a little less magical? Sure. But by cutting out unnecessary baggage fees, you’ll have more in your gift budget for friends and family to go around.

If you struggle with baggage fees even without the presents, check out our packing tips to avoid luggage fees.

10. Use a Rewards Travel Card

There’s no way around it: Holiday flights are expensive. But you can recoup a little bit of the expense by paying for travel with a rewards credit card.

Some travel credit cards might earn you cash back while others can rack up points for future travel. If you have a points card, you can even use existing points to fund your holiday flights.

Contributor Timothy Moore is a writer and editor in Cincinnati who covers banks, loans insurance, travel and automotive topics for The Penny Hoarder. Susan Shain contributed to this post.