Along with peak summer, the period between Christmas and New Year’s is typically one of the most expensive times of year for flights. It is, not surprisingly, also one of the most popular times of year for travel. 2021 will be no exception, especially as many people skipped out on holiday travel last year. But, there are some changes—good ones—in how you can find cheap flights, particularly for international travel.
First, why are Christmas flights so expensive?
- The three-week period around Christmas and New Year’s is the most expensive time to fly all year, typically starting around December 17th and lasting through January 7th or so.
- The reason why is because everyone wants to travel then, and airlines only have so many seats—they can’t just bring in new planes to meet holiday demand—so prices go up.
- If you have flexible vacation time and keeping flights cheap is a priority, we’d strongly advise buying flights around Christmas and traveling a different time of year. Even if you really want to travel in the winter, the end of November/beginning of December and January/February tend to be some of the least expensive periods for flights.
When is Christmas in 2021?
Christmas this year is Saturday, December 25, 2021. Christmas Eve is Friday, December 24, 2021.
Is it safe to travel for Christmas in 2021?
The air in planes is fresher than many people realize. Fresh air is constantly being brought in from outside and circulated throughout the plane, and planes use hospital-grade filters that capture 99.97% of airborne particles. The chances of getting coronavirus on a plane where everyone is masked are low, but not zero (and of course, enforcement of mask policies vary). The biggest risk for many will be who they gather with and where. Closed spaces with unvaccinated people represent the most risk but Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that those who are vaccinated—and who will gather with other vaccinated folks—should feel comfortable spending the holidays with family.
Read our guide to travel during the coronavirus pandemic.
When is the best time to book Christmas flights?
Most airlines beginning selling tickets around 12 months out from departure date. (Notable exception: Southwest Airlines, which only releases fares a few months out.) So next year’s Christmas flights are going on sale just as December this year is ending.
You don’t want to wait until the last minute to book because prices tend to spike late. On the other hand, you don’t want to book too early, because you might miss out on a future price drop.
Timing-wise, you want what we call the Goldilocks Window, so you should aim to book 5-10 months in advance of travel. That is far earlier than most other people book flights, so you have a better chance of getting the cheap seats. Still, it's not a good idea to book just any old fare in February through July. When a particularly good fare pop ups up—and they’re most likely to during that period—that’s the ideal time to book.
Most years, the closer you get to Christmas, especially within a few months, we wouldn’t anticipate getting anything resembling a “cheap” flight, unfortunately. Last-minute cheap flights or standby flights are virtually non-existent in a typical year. At that point, limiting your losses is likely the best you can hope for. Of course, while we've gotten some sense or normalcy back in our lives this year, 2021 still isn't a typical year.
Unlike in most years, this year you do actually have a chance of finding a last-minute (ish) flight that won't break the bank. More on that below...
>> Read our Ultimate Guide to Finding Cheap Flights
How much do flights over Christmas cost?
If you live in a big American city (NYC, LA, etc.), a great fare over Christmas would be ~$500 roundtrip to Europe, maybe slightly higher to Asia. If you live in a smaller market, a great Christmas fare to Europe will be closer to $600 roundtrip.
Same goes for destinations: the smaller the destination market, the more you should anticipate paying.
Of course, those are ideal (though not terribly uncommon) fares if you book in that February through July period. A good international Christmas fare booked in October would be over $800.
Domestic flights can cost nearly as much—sometimes even more—than international flights. San Francisco to Detroit, for example, can typically run $400 if you book in advance, and spike to $700+ if you wait until closer to departure.
With all that in mind, if you’re still intent on flying somewhere over the holidays and you haven't yet booked, here’s how you should approach finding cheap Christmas flights.
How Christmas travel will be different in 2021
You have a better shot at a last-minute deal
In most years, we stress that the best time to search for cheap flights—what we call the Goldilocks Window—is 2-6 months in advance for international travel and 1-3 months in advance for domestic. During peak times like Christmas, New Year’s, or when your dates are not flexible) you’ll want to book even further out, if possible.
That's because the closer it gets to your travel date, the more the odds of snagging a good deal decrease—especially if your dates and destination aren't flexible, as is the case for most holiday travelers. But lately, things have been a bit different, and we've actually seen a lot more last-minute fares at great prices than we have in years past.
The reason for the increase in last-minute deals is complicated, but at the most basic level it comes down to supply and demand. Throughout the pandemic, whenever travel interest has started to show signs of rebounding, airlines have been aggressive about getting ahead of it, adding more and larger planes on routes they expect to have the biggest surges in demand. This increases both competition and supply on these routes.
But aside from a blip during the summer, actual demand has generally tended to creep back at a much more gradual pace, leaving a persistent gap between the abundant supply of available seats, and the not-quite-back-where-it-was demand. Airlines have dealt with this in several ways.
All those schedule changes and cancellations we’ve all read about? They can partially be attributed to a reshuffling of schedules when demand hasn’t quite met supply. But more importantly for cheap-flights aficionados like yourselves, airlines have responded by frequently slashing last-minute fares in an attempt to entice folks who have tended to pull the trigger later and with more hesitance, to fill those planes.
This is great news for procrastinators this year, but don't get too comfortable. It's a trend that's unlikely to last into 2022.
Be prepared for delays
Delays and cancellations are a fact of life any holiday season, but we could see more of them than usual this year as airlines adjust their schedules based on demand, and as they struggle to find qualified workers in some cases. Remember, though, if the airline significantly alters your schedule, you can get a full refund or request that they accommodate you on another flight It's easier for the larger airlines to do the latter, as they have interline agreements with other airlines, while airlines like Southwest do not).
Booking with a credit cards that offers travel protection
Select credit cards offer travel protections that will cover expenses caused by trip interruption or cancellation, like replacement clothes if your luggage is lost or delayed, a replacement flight, or a hotel room.
2021 Christmas and holiday travel forecast
Even as news of the Omicron variant is growing, people are sticking to their plans.
- Of those who were planning to travel for Christmas before the Omicron news, 87% have not changed their plans. 10% have canceled or postponed, and 3% changed the location).
- Of those who were unsure about their plans prior to the Omicron announcement, 27% have since decided not to travel and 45% are still undecided.
- 62% of people are worried about Omicron disrupting their holiday plans, but even more—79%—are worried about it impacting their travel plans for 2022.
Tips for finding cheap Christmas flights
Book your Christmas flights ASAP and keep in mind the 21-day mark
Many travelers don’t start thinking about Christmas flights until winter is approaching. (Understandably!) The problem is that November/December is the toughest time to find a good winter holiday flight. If you’ve got a cheap-flight-loving heart, the best strategy is, instead, to book during the opposite season.
Much like how coats are cheaper in the summer, so too are holiday flights generally cheaper when you book them in the summer. So when you’re at your July 4th BBQ, that’s when you should start looking about winter holiday flights. And when you’re getting dolled up for that New Year’s ball, that’s when you should start looking about summer flights.
But once that ship has sailed, and you absolutely have to buy a last-minute ticket for Christmas, there's a way to avoid predictable price jumps.
One of the most common fares for tickets is an advance purchase requirement, which says that a particular price, or fare bucket, is only available if you purchase before a certain point before departure. This is often 21 days but can also be 14 or 7 days.
Airlines do this because they know they can get more money out of business travelers, who tend to purchase tickets at the last minute at any price. This means a fare will typically jump in price at 21 days out, and again at 14 or 7 days. So if you're watching a fare and hoping the price might go down, make sure you book before the 21 days mark as odds are the price will rise at that point.
Remember flexibility is your friend for Christmas flights
The more flexible you are with airports, the better your chances of getting a cheap flight.
For example, fares may be $500 roundtrip from Philadelphia to Seattle, but only $300 from NYC to Seattle. You can get a flight, train, or bus from Philadelphia to NYC for as low as $50 roundtrip. By separating your trip into two itineraries rather than one, you can drop the total cost from $500 to $350 in this example—and that adds up in you're taking the whole family.
Similarly, fares may be $1,000 from NYC to Amsterdam, but just $500 NYC to Brussels. If cheap flights are a priority, either you take a vacation to Belgium instead of the Netherlands, or just hop a train once you land in Brussels and make your way up to Netherlands for way less than the $1,000 it would have cost to fly directly there. Read more here about how to combine two itineraries and save.
Fly during off peak times for better prices on Christmas flights
In 2021, Christmas Eve falls on a Friday, so most people will be flying from Wednesday evening to Friday morning and many will return back home on Sunday. Scheduling your departure flight earlier in the week and your return flight later in the week could help you save. Likewise, flying on Christmas itself is sometimes cheaper. You can also look at some of the less desirable times—early morning, late night, and red eye flights—that often cost a bit less.
Look for amazing deals in premium classes
A lack of business travelers right now has meant some pretty great deals in business class where prices for a lie-flat seat aren't much more than what you'd typically pay for a regularly priced economy seat. If you've got to travel over the holidays, it's worth comparing the cost of premium seating to economy. You may find that the small increase in cost is worth it for the large increase in comfort.
Consider an international trip for Christmas in 2021
Things may be a bit different this year. In normal times, “cheap last-minute flights” is an oxymoron. But as with many aspects of society, the pandemic has temporarily complicated airfare.
There's still some lingering hesitancy about international travel. Add in a lack of business travelers heading overseas, and we’re seeing far more cheap international last-minute flights than we would in a typical year. But the perfect storm that’s enabling currently cheap last-minute flights is unlikely to persist through next year.
Christmas travel pro tips
Fly early or late
Most people don't want to be at the airport at 5am or 11pm. Picking flights at less desirable times, such as red-eyes or the first flight of the morning, can save you money.
Check alternate airports
If there's another airport within a few hours drive of your usual departure airport, check prices. Sometimes the savings are enough to warrant the drive.
If you’re flying internationally, focus on getting across the ocean as cheaply as possible
This works especially well for less-visited destinations or spots within an hour or two of a major hub by train or plane. For example, if you want to visit Bordeaux, it may be much cheaper to fly into Paris or even London and then take a short flight or a train ride from there.
Give yourself ample time
Lines are always longer during peak travel times, and is you're flying internationally you'll likely need extra time for additional paperwork like test results and proofo of vaccinations. Get to the airport earlier than you normally would, and allow plenty of time between connections.
Don't forget the masks and sanitizer
Masks are required in airports, on planes, and often on public transportation, so bring a backup or two. You can also pack up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer in your carry on (other liquids are limited to 3 ounces or less).
Use an overbooked flight to your advantage
Overbooking can be more common during peak times, and if your travel plans are flexible, you could walk away with lots of cash. When you volunteer, be sure to ask that your compensation match the final amount offered. You can even negotiate to get it in cash or get a perk on your next flight, like a bump to business class.
Where to go for Christmas in 2021
Whether you want to escape the holiday season or embrace it, warm up or cool down, there are plenty of amazing places to spend the holiday. Here are just a few ideas.
Germany: Germany, particularly in the region of Bavaria, is known for its incredible Christmas markets. With vendors selling hot pretzels and even hotter glasses of mulled wine, plus tons handmade crafts, you might not even mind the cold. Bonus: stick around and head to Berlin for an epic New Year's Eve.
Leavenworth, Washington: Leavenworth is known as one of the best Christmas towns in the US. The Bavarian-style village is great all year, but especially lovely all lit up with Christmas lights. Plus, nearby mountains offer great skiing.
Mexico: If you're looking to escape the snow, Mexico is a great option that doesn't require a long flight for people in much of the US. Feeling adventurous? Head to Mexico City or Oaxaca. Want something as easy as possible? Check into an all-inclusive in Cancun or Cabo. The choices are endless.
Colorado: Embrace the snow in the Colorado mountains. Head to a resort town like Aspen, Vail, or Beaver Creek and you can ski, snowboard, skate, snowshoe, tube, or just cozy up with a warm drink by the fire. (Read our travel guide to Colorado.)
Norway: Norway is one of the best spots to see the northern lights. Spend a few nights in Oslo and then head north where you can go dog sledding, learn about traditional Sami culture, and sleep in a glass-topped igloo to watch the northern lights dance overhead.
Maldives: Another amazing spot to soak up the sun and avoid the snow, the Maldives is the ultimate luxury beach vacation. It's not cheap, but it'll be a holiday to remember.
The best time to travel for Christmas
The best times to travel for Christmas in 2021 are the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday before Christmas, and late on Christmas Eve or anytime on Christmas Day itself.
The worst time to fly to your destination is the Wednesday and Thursday before Christmas.
More 2021 Christmas travel stats
- While prices are still down from 2019, they are up a bit from their 2020 record lows. Average airfares right now are 23% down from this time in 2019. At this point last year they were 35% down.
- It's expected that around 2 million people will take to the skies over Christmas, which is double 2020's numbers, but only 80% of the number of travelers in 2019, according to Hopper.
- The most searched destinations on Scott's Cheap Flights currently are: London, Paris, Las Vegas, Rome, NYC, Los Angeles, Cancun, and Orlando.
Our favorite sites for finding cheap Christmas fares
- Google Flights: Google Flights is the best place to start any flight search as it makes it easy to search multiple airports and see prices across a range of dates.
- Momondo: Momondo searches some additional OTAs that aren't covered by Google Flights so it can sometimes unearth cheaper fares that Google Flights doesn't show.
- Kayak: Kayak is another great search site that is easy to use and can sometimes discover fares that aren't listed on Google Flights.