"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."
Avoid Peak Travel Days
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.
"On PackLate, when you're looking at a particular property, there's a button underneath it that says 'Get Price Changes,'" says Barsh. "Let's say there's five or 10 properties you really like in a given destination. You can click the button and put price watches on them, and PackLate will automatically update you if the price moves or if the property gets booked." Most major travel companies offer similar alerts for airfare, so you can stay well informed during the research/pre-booking process.
Consider Alternate Airports
"I'm a big Chicago Midway guy," says Peters. "I moved out here from New York almost two years ago now, and was commuting to New York every week. I was doing it through O'Hare for the first three or four months and then I just decided to try Midway. What an absolute pleasure; and there's a lot of airports like that around the country."
If you're flying into an area that's serviced by multiple airports, you may find better deals, flight availability, and schedules at secondary airports over the holidays. When conducting your price comparisons, make sure to include all area airports in your search results. In addition to flight prices and schedules, keep commuting times to and from the airport in mind, as well as airline fees and ground transportation options to determine the best itinerary for your travels.
Know When the Sales are Announced
A sale is only valuable to you if you can take advantage of it, so knowing when to search (and when to book) are major factors in getting a deal. "Research Monday, book Tuesday night or Wednesday, just be really smart about timing," says Peters. Many airlines announce sales on Tuesday mornings, and competitors will match those sales throughout the day. As such, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are usually good days to snag a deal.
For vacation rentals, Barsh says Wednesdays and Sundays are big booking days on PackLate. "Wednesday, people tend to get ready for the weekend. Sunday nights are busy because everybody's home with their families thinking, 'What are we going to do [for an upcoming trip]?' Other days are a little quieter, but [Wednesdays and Sundays] are the days when inventory really starts to move; [travelers] are thinking of the weekend ahead or the week ahead."
Similar to the fare and property alerts, you can also sign up for email newsletters that will deliver the latest sales to your inbox. SmarterTravel's daily Deal Alert newsletter sends the newest travel deals and advice out each morning; major travel providers also offer similar products. If you're planning a trip, these notifications are indispensable toward finding affordable options.
Lastly, stay abreast of sales through social media. Most companies now have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, and some providers offer exclusive deals on these sites (e.g., JetBlue's Cheep fares, United's twares).
Sarah Pascarella is a Senior Editor for Smarter Travel and writes the Sarah's Travel Tips column. She shares the best advice for travelers on issues including booking, planning, comfort, safety, and convenience. SmarterTravel provides expert, unbiased information on timely travel deals, the best value destinations, and money-saving travel tips.