"2009 was definitely the year of the deal," says John Peters, vice president/general manager of digital strategy and travel for Rand McNally, and former CEO of Tripology. "Everyone had unplanned inventory to unload. This year, we're telling people, is not a wait-and-see year. For the past year we've all been spoiled with really inexpensive flights, and [now] they're just not there."
If you're planning on traveling during the busy Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays this year, advance preparation is the name of the game. But how early is too early? When's the best time to book? While I don't have a crystal ball to tell you exactly when you should purchase your airfare and accommodations, there are some good practices that can help you find a fair price.
Expect Lower Prices in Early Fall
If last year is any indication, airlines will start pitching holiday sales right after Labor Day, and holiday flights will be at their cheapest the first two weeks of October. However, you can start comparing airfares now to see what current prices are, then see if they drop in September or October.
I compared several routes that SmarterTravel's airfare experts tracked last year for the holidays and found that prices are currently higher than they were in late summer 2009, although it's early enough that the airlines have little incentive to slash prices for holiday travel yet. Right now, it's still a seller's market; but it could become a buyer's market in the coming weeks. Remember, though, with capacity cuts, fewer seats at lower prices will be available. Once you see a good price for your budget, you'll want to snap it up.
"There's more to it than just price," says Steve Barsh, CEO of PackLate, which offers last-minute deals on vacation rentals. "If [it's] what you want, book it."
With so many travelers heading to see friends and family, the same days tend to fill up quickly. In November, the peak travel days will always be the day before Thanksgiving and the Sunday following the holiday. In December, the two days preceding Christmas and the day or two after are typically busy. As such, the earlier or later you can travel, or be willing to travel on the holiday itself, will usually result in better prices and more seat choices.
"We've changed a few trips not to fly during peak times," says Peters. "We can all appreciate [planning vacations] around the kids having a few days off from school, but you can save 20 or 30 percent by traveling a week before or a week after [a holiday]. Take an extra day here and there and tack it on [to your vacation] and you'll be amazed at the difference." If you're not locked into school- or work-mandated vacation days, being flexible with your travel dates can be a great cost-saving strategy.
Compare Prices and Sign Up for Alerts
As always, the best way to be informed about prices is to compare what's on offer for several days among multiple providers. You can also sign up for alerts from many travel companies so you'll be notified when the price changes.