We’re still several weeks away from turkeys appearing on supermarket shelves en masse and familiar holiday tunes playing on the loudspeakers in stores. However, now is the time to get serious about booking holiday travel — particularly when it comes to flights.
To avoid paying a premium for holiday travel, it’s key to lock in your holiday airfare sooner rather than later: Book Thanksgiving flights by the first couple weeks of October, and Christmas and New Year’s flights by the end of October, according to a seasonal forecast from booking app Hopper.
But how soon you book isn’t the only factor to consider as you solidify your end-of-year travel plans, whether you’re headed home for Thanksgiving or to the mountains for some late-December skiing.
The type of ticket you book, when you travel and even the credit card you use to lock in your travel plans can be critical pieces of your holiday travel experience.
Waiting too long to book is one common mistake. Here are seven other mistakes to avoid in booking 2023 holiday travel.
Mistake 1: Being inflexible with travel plans
Being inflexible with travel plans keeps you from being able to take advantage of the lowest possible airfare.
For those of us with full-time, in-person jobs, or family members with work or school requirements, flexibility is often easier said than done — particularly when it comes to the short Thanksgiving holiday period.
Anything you can do to open up your airfare search can help, though.
Let’s say I’m a college student or young professional in Washington, D.C., who needs to return home to Austin for Thanksgiving.
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Based on my schedule, I may feel like I have to fly out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) — the closest airport to the city — no earlier than 4 p.m. on the Wednesday before the holiday and fly back on the Sunday after.
With all those parameters for my search, the cheapest airfare currently available goes for $645 on American Airlines, according to a quick search on Google Flights.
Watch what happens, though, if I rearrange my schedule and timing and search all of the Washington, D.C., region’s airports.
Here’s a $449 round-trip flight on Southwest Airlines departing from Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI). It still departs on the Wednesday before, just earlier in the day; it also still returns on Sunday.
That’s a 30% savings just by removing a bit of rigidity from my plans.
Any other flexibility you can find in your plans can help, whether it’s departing on a different day or — for the ultraflexible travelers — flying from a different location where the fares are cheaper.
Mistake 2: Flying on the busiest days
In both 2021 and 2022, the single busiest day of the year for U.S. airports was the Sunday following Thanksgiving, according to Transportation Security Administration passenger data.
That’s not too surprising: Millions of travelers head home on that day.
With airfare dictated by supply and demand, you’ll frequently see the worst prices on the busiest days surrounding major holidays.
At Thanksgiving, Hopper suggests flying on the Monday before the holiday and returning on the Monday (or later) after, thus avoiding the peak days before and after Turkey Day.
Hopper likewise cautions against flying home Dec. 26, the day after Christmas.
For example, let’s say I’m hoping to fly one of the ‘”Big Three”‘ airlines from Chicago to Miami at Christmas; ideally, I want to depart Dec. 22 (the Friday before the holiday weekend) and return Dec. 26. The cheapest round-trip option with nonstop flights on those dates we found: $477 on United Airlines.
However, if I can shift to some slightly less busy days, departing Dec. 21 and returning Dec. 27, I can save more than 30% with this $325 round trip.
Mistake 3: Forgetting to set an airfare alert
Booking or putting a hold on holiday flights soon is ideal. However, if your plans aren’t set in stone or you’re otherwise not ready to take the leap yet, the worst thing you can do is forget about booking and just “check back in a few weeks.”
Several sites have services that will alert you to price fluctuations in airfare.
Suppose I’m planning to book a flight from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Denver International Airport (DEN) for Christmas and am not prepared to pay for this $470 round-trip journey on United Airlines just yet. In that case, I’m going to use Google Flights’ “Track prices” option.
As soon as I do that, Google Flights will monitor any fluctuations in my itinerary and email me alerts for any changes.
Mistake 4: Using the wrong credit card
Another common mistake travelers can make is using the wrong credit card to book a flight, hotel or other trip element.
There are a couple of factors to consider when deciding which card to use. You might want to use a card that earns the most rewards for airline or hotel purchases or a card that might help put you over the top with elite status as the year winds down.
Most important, though, is selecting the card in your wallet with travel insurance benefits. Numerous cards will reimburse you for covered trip cancellations, trip interruptions or other issues. This can potentially save you hundreds of dollars if you get stranded somewhere and face an unexpected night in a hotel.
Often, cards with trip insurance benefits will pay for expenses even when a flight is canceled, for instance, due to weather — which airlines typically won’t cover.
In most cases, there’s a key stipulation: You generally have to book all aspects of the trip with that card in order to be eligible for an insurance claim.
On many occasions, we’ve heard stories from TPG readers who have made a trip insurance claim with their card issuer after a cancellation and unexpected hotel night. It was not until later that they realized they had booked their flight with a different card and were, therefore, not eligible for any reimbursement.
Mistake 5: Using too many miles or points
Here at TPG, we’ll be the first to say it: Using points and miles is a great way to reduce the out-of-pocket cost of travel.
However, treating your hard-earned points and miles like the currency they are is critical to avoid handing over too many at once.
With many airline and hotel loyalty programs now using dynamic award pricing models that are less predictable, you could end up paying way too much in points or miles for a flight during the pricey holiday season if you’re not careful.
As enticing as it may be to avoid paying for that Thanksgiving flight, using all your points for holiday travel will mean there’s nothing left for a vacation in the new year. This would be especially unfortunate if you had been saving up for a long-haul business-class seat or other redemption that could give you a little more value for your points.
When in doubt, consult TPG’s awards-versus-cash calculator, which will help you compare prices in dollars and points to decide how to book.
Mistake 6: Packing more than you need
Overpacking for any trip can cost you, but during the frantic and already-expensive holiday season, it can tip flight costs well beyond your budget.
Proceed with caution when booking a basic economy ticket or a flight on an ultra-low-cost carrier. It can be an appealing way to save some money on the base fare, but it can end up costing you money for a small suitcase even if you didn’t plan to check a bag.
On budget airlines, luggage costs for both carry-on and checked bags can rise at the airport compared with online. The same applies to United Airlines and JetBlue, as both do not allow free, full-size carry-on bags on basic economy fares.
If you’re checking a bag, be mindful of your bag’s weight, particularly at Christmas, when you may be returning home with gifts in your luggage. Checking multiple bags or bringing a bag of more than 50 pounds typically incurs a significant expense.
That said, this is where the right travel or airline credit card can pay for itself: It can often provide multiple family members traveling on the same reservation with free checked bags.
Mistake 7: Making reservations you can’t cancel or change
If the last couple of years have taught us anything, it’s the value of having an “out” with your travel plans.
That’s been especially true around the holidays. The COVID-19 pandemic upended travel three years ago, and the omicron surge threw a wrench in many travelers’ plans one year ago. Not to mention, bad weather plus Southwest Airlines’ meltdown also caused travel nightmares one year ago.
One of the best ways to be prepared for any wrench in your travel plans — before or during your trip — is to book reservations you can cancel for either a full refund or full trip credit.
For airlines, the three “legacy” carriers (American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines) will generally give you full trip credit if you cancel even a nonrefundable main cabin ticket. They also don’t charge change fees on regular economy fares.
However, on many airlines, basic economy tickets tend to be a lot more restrictive in terms of ticket changes (which typically aren’t allowed unless you pay) and getting money back (even trip credit).
Southwest Airlines will give you, at a minimum, full trip credit on all tickets as long as you cancel at least 10 minutes before departure.
Hotels and car rentals
Changing your plans is much more difficult when you’ve already invested prepaid, nonrefundable money in hotel reservations and car rentals.
Though choosing to “pay now” when booking these trip elements can be an enticing way to save some money, proceed with caution when prepaying.
Generally, most standard hotel reservations and car rentals will allow you to cancel, penalty-free, up until a day or two before your trip.
This allows you to both adapt to unexpected twists and turns and to cancel and rebook your stay if you later find a better price.
By the way, award flights or stays booked with points generally do not have the trappings of prepaid, nonrefundable reservations. If something comes up, you can typically cancel and get your points or miles back.