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

cheap holiday flights
Elvert Barnes under Creative Commons

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. Some experts claim you could add $5 to the cost of your ticket for every day you wait to buy.

The cheapest flights pop up 60-90 days ahead of time — which means you probably should’ve already booked for Thanksgiving, and should book ASAP for Hanukkah and Christmas.

2. 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; it’s only 123 miles away. If you need ideas, check out this handy list of alternate airports from Johnny Jet.

3. 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.

4. Avoid 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.

5. 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 or not, it doesn’t hurt to shop for tickets in a private browser (like Chrome Incognito), so no cookies are recorded. 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.

6. Purchase your tickets on Wednesday at 1 am

It’s common advice to purchase your tickets early in the week, as that’s generally when airlines release their discounted fares.

But flight expert Peter Greenberg takes it a step further, recommending you book tickets at 1 a.m. on Wednesday (making sure to account for the airline's time zone).

Why? “At midnight Tuesday, all the discount fares that weren’t purchased come flooding back into the airline’s computer systems,” he explains. “And that’s when you strike.”

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.)

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

Your Turn: Have you purchased your holiday flights yet? If not, are you planning to book soon?

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

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