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 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.
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.
If you're a procrastinator, 2021 may be the year you get lucky
In recent months we’ve noticed significantly more last-minute fares in the past. And you can thank the ongoing pandemic for that.
While travel has rebounded a significant amount, it's not entirely back to pre-pandemic levels, and demand has lagged behind the supply of seats on many routes, particularly international ones. As more countries opened, airlines very quickly increased capacity and now many routes have seen flights often departing with a lot of empty seats. And what do airlines do when they have empty seats? Generally they drop prices.
With airlines competing hard to fill those seats, there have been some surprisingly good fares for holiday travel even at less than 10-12 weeks out, which in most years we would not see.
Your best bet to save the most money is still to book within the Goldilocks Window, but if you didn't and you're still hoping to get a good deal—particularly for an international Christmas trip—2021 may be your year.
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.
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.