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Holiday Travel: October is Best Bet for Christmas, Thanksgiving Deals

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It’s not even the middle of October and I’m already worried — on your behalf — about booking Thanksgiving and year-end holiday travel. Why? Fuller-than-ever planes and increasing demand, thanks to a better economy. We don’t often associate “deal” with “holiday travel,” which is a good thing because you may already be too late to get the best fares.

That’s the word from online travel agency Orbitz, which has been crunching numbers and analyzing trends.

Some of the findings won’t surprise you: Airfare prices are up. The most expensive day to fly at Thanksgiving is the day before ($500, average fare). The best thing about holiday travel is being welcomed by your loved ones.

But here are some things that did surprise: For Orbitz travelers, the No. 2 destination for Thanksgiving and Christmas and No. 1 for New Year’s is — ready? — Cancún, Mexico. (Orlando, Fla., is No. 1 for the first two.) Seventy percent of travelers would rather stay in a hotel (given the chaos of big holidays, I can understand that an escape hatch helps).

The biggest surprise — and we don’t mean that in a happy way — is that if you’re looking for the best day to book the lowest-priced airfare for Thanksgiving or Christmas, you’ve already missed it. It was Wednesday for Christmas and Friday for Thanksgiving. (Yes, Christmas before Thanksgiving. That may be because more people travel at Christmas, the Orbitz study said.)

Looking at fares before and after those dates and using Seattle as a test case, here’s what, an airfare aggregator, showed: If you were spending Christmas with family in Seattle and you planned to arrive Dec. 20 and leave Jan. 3, you would have paid as little as $245 round trip from LAX on Oct. 6; by Thursday, that fare increased to $271.

“While people may be waiting later to book [holiday] travel, we find best deals in early October,” said Jeanenne Tornatore, senior editor for Orbitz.

Before you panic, that doesn’t mean you won’t get a seat; it just means you will pay more.

One ray of hope: Historically, fares have dropped briefly around Veterans Day, said Courtney Scott, senior editor at Travelocity, also an online travel agency. The dip, although not guaranteed, “happened in 2013 and 2012,” she said. “It’s not a significant drop,” but if you’ve been more preoccupied with your Halloween costume than turkey and presents, it’s something.

Travelers tend to be less price-sensitive this time of year, the Orbitz study said. People are willing to spend more on holiday travel than on travel at other times, although they are mindful of other costs that turn a budget on its head (parking at the airport or baggage fees).

You have a little more leeway with New Year’s Eve. It’s “one of those holidays … that’s sort of an afterthought,” Tornatore said. “Lots of people look and see where [they] can get the best deals.”

Unlike room rates at Thanksgiving and Christmas, which tend to increase only slightly, hotel rates increase 8% for New Year’s Eve, the Orbitz study said.

No matter the holiday, your best bet for finding deals may involve booking earlier in the week, making sure you sign up with airlines for their emails touting sales, and using social media, especially Twitter, to see if you can jump on a good fare.


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