The holiday season is very much upon us. Flights around the Christmas holiday are typically some of the most expensive you’ll see all year. Of course, 2020 was an exception to this rule, with many staying put due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
But now travel is rebounding, despite the development of the Omicron variant; millions have been vaccinated against Covid-19 and families and friends are ready to reunite.
Just like Thanksgiving, signs point to a busy travel period during the December holidays, which means flights will be full — and expensive.
If you’ve been putting off purchasing your late-December flights — whether for Christmas, New Year’s Eve or anything else — now’s the time to do so. But before making any decisions, make sure you know the best tips and tricks so you’re not stuck paying a small fortune to fly around the holiday period.
We’ve put together a list of the five best methods for finding cheap Christmas flights — here’s what you need to know.
Consider traveling on ‘off days’
Pre-pandemic, the busiest travel days of the Christmas period were Dec. 23 and the Sunday after Christmas. This year, however, that’s expected to shift slightly, given many travelers’ flexible working arrangements that allow them to travel on nontraditional days.
And, often, that means cheaper flights.
Take, for example, flights from Detroit to Dallas. Nonstop economy flights from Thursday, Dec. 23, to the Sunday after Christmas, Dec. 26, will cost you $509 round trip with full-service airline American.
However, if you’re able to work remotely — or have extra time to take off — and could travel from Thursday, Dec. 23 to after the new year on Jan. 5, you could fly for just $391 round trip with American.
Of course, not everyone will have the flexibility that allows them to travel on the cheapest days. There are plenty of business travelers who can only be away from the office during the “traditional” Christmas travel dates. But, if you are someone who is able to work remotely, it’s certainly worth considering extending — or shortening — your trip to potentially save several hundred dollars on flights.
Look at nearby airports
Many major metropolitan areas have multiple airports for flyers to choose from. New York has LaGuardia (LGA), Kennedy (JFK) and Newark (EWR) airports; Chicago has O’Hare (ORD) and Midway (MDW); Houston has George Bush-Intercontinental (IAH) and Hobby (HOU); and the list goes on.
When you’re searching for flights, check to see whether your destination has a secondary airport that serves the area. Many times, it can be cheaper to fly to those smaller airports instead of the principal airport serving a given region.
For example, if you wanted to travel from Pittsburgh to the Boston area on prime Christmas travel days, you could do so for $352 round trip if you were to fly to Boston Logan International Airport (BOS) with Delta Air Lines.
Or you could fly to nearby Providence (PVD) for a comparatively reasonable $228 round trip on the same dates with new airline Breeze.
Flexible plans? Use Google Flights to find the cheapest options
If you’re not dead set on one particular destination but just know that you want to get away for the holiday, you should use Google Flights’ Explore function. The free service allows you to see which destination has the cheapest airfare.
The Explore function allows you to search with specific dates or with flexible dates within a given month. You can choose your origin city and let Google do the work for you. From there, you can simply click the destination that appeals to you and fits in your budget and proceed to book your flights.
Google Flights also allows you to set fare alerts and it will email you if and when the cost of a given ticket increases or decreases. This is especially helpful if you set alerts months in advance of when you intend to travel so you can jump on a good deal if it comes around.
Avoid the low-cost carriers if you can
Many budget airlines have made strides in recent years to improve both their operations and customer experience. However, while they may offer cheap fares, they are notorious for charging significant fees for any extras you may want, like checked luggage, seat selection, carry-on bags and, in some cases, even water.
And while “legacy” carriers like American, Delta and United have emulated the low-cost experience with basic economy fares, you can avoid them simply by purchasing a “normal” economy ticket. But if you choose to fly a low-cost carrier, you run a greater risk of getting delayed or even stuck if weather or other factors hinder your flights.
Legacy carriers typically have larger fleets and greater flight frequencies, meaning you have a better chance of still getting to your final destination should something go wrong on the day of travel.
Put your points and miles to use
If you’re not having much luck finding flights that fit in your budget, you can turn to any points or miles you have from flying or from spending on a travel rewards credit card.
All of the major US airlines have their own loyalty programs. If you’ve taken a flight with American, Delta, United, Southwest or JetBlue, for example, in the past and added your frequent flyer number to the reservation, you will have been rewarded with points and miles in return for your business.
And if you’ve gotten enough points and miles saved up in your accounts that have been resting dormant throughout the pandemic, Christmas may be the best time to put them to use.
For example, you could put your United Airlines MileagePlus miles to use on a flight from New York to San Francisco around the Christmas holiday. A round-trip nonstop flight from Monday, Dec. 20, to Monday, Dec. 27, will cost you 45,900 miles and just $11.20 in taxes and fees rather than $775 for the same flights.
While you may not always be getting the best value from your miles, if you’re interested in saving money, it’s a no-brainer.
Keep in mind, too, that if you don’t have enough United miles in your account right now, you can also transfer them in from Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program. If you have a Chase Sapphire card and earn Ultimate Rewards, those points transfer at a one-to-one rate to United Airlines instantly.
In general, using points and miles to book flights around popular travel times is easier when you’re booking far in advance, but as the above example shows, if you have some flexibility and points and miles saved up, you can find good deals even at this stage of the game.
Christmas and the new year are right around the corner. If you haven’t nailed down your travel plans yet, now’s the time to do so. While it’s typically an expensive time to travel, it’s still possible to find affordable airfare for this year’s holidays.
Looking for a travel credit card? Find out which cards CNN Underscored chose as our best travel credit cards of 2021.