As summer fades into fall, it’s high-time to start booking your holiday trips—if you haven’t already. Flying over the holidays can be pricey, but with a little bit of planning and some flexibility, it is possible to find cheap Thanksgiving flights. Even if you didn't act by the end of September, all isn't not lost—especially in 2021 when we're seeing a lot more last-minute deals than usual.
Book your Thanksgiving flights 2-6 months in advance
Generally, 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 summer, Spring Break, Christmas, and New Year’s, or when your dates are not flexible, you’ll want to book even further out, if possible.
The odds of snagging a cheap flight decrease the closer it gets to Thanksgiving, especially if your dates and destination are not flexible. By early September, the window for cheap Thanksgiving flights (and even Christmas and New Year’s) is closing fast. And once you get to about three weeks out from Thanksgiving, you can expect prices to soar.
At least, that's how things usually go...
In 2021, you might still get lucky with a last-minute deal
In general, we are seeing many more last-minute-ish fares than we have in years past.
This can largely be attributed to the fact that demand has lagged supply on many routes. Airlines increased capacity very quickly, particularly on a lot of leisure-focused routes, and though travel demand has bounced back, it’s still below pre-pandemic levels.
That’s leaving a lot of empty seats on planes, and airlines are competing hard to fill them out. While we continue to advise folks to stay aware of the Goldilocks Window mentioned above, even if you procrastinated, you might get a mulligan this year (but don't expect this to be the case in 2022).
Look at international destinations for the best Thanksgiving travel deals
Thanksgiving is a bit of an anomaly among the holidays when it comes to international deals. If you’re looking to travel domestically, with millions of your fellow Americans visiting family at the exact same time, it can be expensive and a holiday-booking strategy should apply (e.g. start watching prices as early as possible).
However, for international flights, it can actually be one of the best times of year to find a cheap flight. The millions of travelers flying domestically are, by definition, not traveling internationally. For airlines, it’s a feast-time domestically and a famine-time internationally. What do airlines do to fill all those planes flying to Paris and Cancún and Barcelona? Simple: slash the fare.
International flights get significantly pricier in mid-December for the Christmas/New Year’s period. But in late November, airlines still have to entice travelers overseas. Timing-wise, Thanksgiving is an especially convenient week to travel. Most kids get a five-day weekend from school, if not the entire week off. Many workplaces do the same.
It’s also good timing at your destination, especially if you’re traveling across the Atlantic. Europe is one of the best places to fly for Thanksgiving. Late November is when many European Christmas markets begin popping up. Plus the weather is still plenty manageable in autumn. One final benefit: late November is off peak for most international destinations. It’s not just flights that are cheaper; it’s hotels, car rentals, and activities as well.
Always book before the 21-, 14-, and 7-day marks
If you absolutely have to buy a last-minute ticket for Thanksgiving, here's a way to avoid predictable price jumps.
Every time you purchase a flight, the ticket has fine print dictating, among other things, how it’s priced. These are known as “fare rules” and tickets are lumped in many different “fare buckets.” One of the most common fare rule items is an advance purchase requirement, which mandates that a particular fare bucket is only available if booked, say, 21 days or more in advance of travel.
Also common: 14-day and 7-day advance purchase requirements.
The reason airlines use advance purchase requirements is simple: leisure travelers tend to book flights early and business travelers tend to book flights late. Airlines want to make sure they milk as much money as possible from business travelers who don’t care what the flight costs (it’s their company paying, after all), so they increase fares on the type of tickets business travelers buy, including last-minute bookings.
This means a fare will typically go up 21 days, 14 days, and 7 days before departure (though of course, that's not that only time the price might change). If you're watching a fare and it's been relatively stable, set an alarm for these benchmarks and try to book before them—odds are the price will rise on these days.
Be flexible with dates
If you’re trying to find flights to see family for Thanksgiving, you’ll be much more likely to snag a deal if you can pad your travel dates so that you aren’t flying out the day before Thanksgiving and back home the Sunday after—as these are two of the busiest travel days of the year.
Instead, look at flying to your destination earlier in the week when most people are still at work, or flying back home later the following week. If you don’t have extra time off work, try to fly when most people don’t want to: for example, most people start their Thanksgiving celebrations by Thursday afternoon, so flights that arrive later on in the day are typically cheaper than those that arrive in the morning.
If you’re not visiting family and are instead planning a much-needed international vacation, consider leaving Thanksgiving day, when fares are typically lower, and coming back mid-week the following week.
Use the flexible dates search function on Google Flights to find the most affordable days and times to travel over your targeted date range. Sometimes changing your dates by just a day or two can make a huge difference in cost.
Going on vacation? Be flexible with your destination, too
Don’t care where you go? As always, we recommend using Google Flights to jump-start your search and find the cheapest dates and locations.
Google Flights’ Explore Map shows you the cheapest places to travel from your home base over the specified date range you’d like to travel. Regions outside of the United States, for example, won’t be celebrating Thanksgiving, so it’s a great time to squeeze in an affordable Europe vacation to a city like Paris, Amsterdam, or London that’s a lot more expensive in, say, summer or over Christmas.
Our favorite tools for finding cheap Thanksgiving flights
- Google Flights: Google Flights makes it easy to see the cheapest days to fly and to compare prices across several airports. It's fast and reliable, but note that Southwest prices aren't included so if you're flying within the US or in the Caribbean, it's worth comparing prices on Southwest separately.
- Momondo: Momondo searches additional OTAs that Google Flights doesn't, so it can sometimes offer cheaper fares. Booking with an OTA can make things complicated when things go wrong, but sometimes the discount is worth the risk.
- Kayak: Kayak is another great search site that sometimes finds cheaper fares then Google Flights.
Also, keep these tips for cheap Thanksgiving flights in mind:
- Consider the time of day. Less desirable times, such as red-eyes or the first flight of the morning, tend to be cheaper.
- Look at alternate airports. Expand your search to encompass airports within a short drive radius. For example, if you’re going to New York City, flying into Newark, or even Philadelphia, might yield cheaper flights than JFK or LaGuardia.
- Try hidden city ticketing if the place you want to go is a hub. One way to hack airline prices is to look at other ticket options that might have you connecting in the hub you’re attempting to travel to. In other words, a flight from San Francisco to Nashville with a layover in Atlanta might be cheaper than a direct flight from San Francisco to Atlanta; if you’re looking to go to Atlanta as your final destination, you’d take the first leg and not the second. Just remember when you skip a leg on a hidden-city flight, the rest of your ticket will be canceled, so book two one-way tickets, or else skip the flight only on your return leg.
- If you’re flying internationally, focus on getting across the ocean as cheaply as possible. This might mean booking a round-trip flight to a major hub like Paris or London and then another cheap roundtrip flight to your final destination via a low-cost regional carrier (or taking the train, bus, or ferry).
Some great Thanksgiving deals we've found recently:
- Puerto Vallarta nonstop for $249 roundtrip
- Bogotá for $540 roundtrip in business class
- Eastern Europe from $530 roundtrip
- Dominican Republic from $194 roundtrip