Hit the Sweet Spot of Holiday Travel Booking

Fall travel
Fall travel

Planning on traveling for the holidays? It pays to procrastinate -- but not too much.

You would think that booking your Thanksgiving flights today would be cheaper than waiting until November to do so. Wrong. Travelers who purchase fares for holiday flights today pay more -- nearly 20% more -- than those who wait it out a few more months. Then again, drag your feet too long and that last-minute flight will cost nearly 30% more than the lowest fare you could have gotten.

These are the findings of travel website Kayak.com, which analyzed a year's worth of flight-search data averaging 100 million search queries per month. What they discovered can help you save enough for last-minute gifts at the duty-free counter.

The Sweet Spot of Booking

According to Kayak's study, travelers within the U.S. who thought they were getting a jump on savings by booking their holiday six months in advance paid 19% more than those who booked less than a month before the flight date. Book five months before and you pay 18% more, and so on.

Although it may seem nerve-racking to wait, the ideal window for booking flights is three weeks before the flight date, with fares 8% less than the average for the six months prior. So, according to Kayak, to get the lowest domestic fare, book the last week of October or first week of November for Thanksgiving, mid-November for Hanukkah, and early December for Christmas.

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Don't procrastinate too long, though: Add a few additional days to that three-week sweet spot and you'll pay 5% more. Wait until the week before the trip and fares could be as much as 30% higher than the lowest available price.

While the days immediately preceding and following major holidays are usually most expensive, flying on holidays themselves can offer dramatic savings.

And if your winter plans include passing through customs, search for international flights approximately one month before departure. At 34 days out, passengers found fares that were 4% lower than they were six months before the flight. And while the difference in savings between booking six months ahead and booking one month ahead aren't as dramatic as savings on domestic flights, they will be enough to cover a checked bag or two or a few rounds in the airport lounge while you're waiting out weather delays.

More Booking Tips

And as long as you have your calendar out, here are some other findings from Kayak about specific days of the week and potential travel savings. (Many airline websites will show you a range of dates and fares with every search.)

  • Spending a week or less with the in-laws? For domestic trips lasting less than a week, fly out on Saturday and/or back on Monday for 16% less than other days.

  • You can save 10% on average on domestic trips that last longer than a week if you book a Tuesday departure and/or Wednesday return compared to flights on any other day.

  • For international flights, leave Tuesday and/or return on a Wednesday, or, keep it a brief trip and leave on Friday or Saturday and return the following Monday for a whopping 21% in savings. A Saturday departure with a Sunday return will save approximately 9%.

Airlines frequently offer special rates via e-newsletters or social media feeds. For additional savings, bundle hotel and/or car rental into off-season or holiday packages, look into alternative hotel accommodations, and consider using a travel agent to help maneuver holiday cancellations and delays.

Finally, watch out for fees that could run up the cost of that cheap fare you just nabbed. From checked luggage costs to additional charges to use loyalty programs over the holidays (on blackout dates), airfare is often just the beginning of the flight costs. Be sure to factor in all costs, taxes, fees, and incidentals, such as an airline's rebooking and lost-luggage policies. Flying with gifts? Many airlines won't allow wrapped packages. Save time, money, and frustration by packing gift wrap or bags and assembling upon arrival.

Motley Fool contributing writer Molly McCluskey recently flew around the world. Follow her travel and finance tweets on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.