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There’s no place like home for the holidays—if you can get there. Booking your holiday travel plans (if you haven’t already, of course) can get expensive, and the trip itself can be stressful thanks to crowds of fellow holiday travelers. Airfare tends to be more expensive at this time of year, which means you can forget whatever fares you typically pay to fly home (or away) during other parts of the year. But there’s hope on both fronts if you’re willing to book strategically.
When we talk about the “best” fares for holiday travel, that designation is relative to already-inflated high-season prices. But there are some significantly cheaper times to fly during a holiday week or weekend. These cheaper times to fly are typically on the less-popular travel days, which means you’ll also be more likely have a lower-stress airport experience.
How do you figure out which are the cheapest and least crowded dates around the holidays to fly? There are, thankfully, some predictive travel insights that suggest the busiest travel days of the year—and by comparison which holiday travel dates are going to be more affordable. Based on the days of the week that the holidays fall on this year and holiday-season airfare data from Hipmunk, here are the dates you’ll want to avoid to steer clear of packed planes and sky-high airfare.
Best and Worst Days for Thanksgiving Travel 2019
Thanksgiving has consistent travel trends due to the fact that it’s always on a Thursday, and most non-retail and non-food service businesses close both for the holiday and on the Friday after, as do schools. This means that most people are locked into certain travel dates: Schools may be closed the day after Thanksgiving, but many are still in session the day before, forcing parents to travel on Wednesday afternoon.
The day before Thanksgiving is typically the busiest travel day of the year. Historical data from Skyscanner confirms this to be typical of most Thanksgiving seasons.
Long story short, the “best” Thanksgiving travel days are limited and depend heavily on your ability to be flexible, which isn’t always an option, especially if you’ve got kids in school.
Best Thanksgiving Travel Day
- Monday, November 25
Data from Hipmunk shows that the Monday before Thanksgiving once again offers the best fares. You’re also likely to find smaller crowds—about half as many people travel on Monday compared to later in the week (see the table below for more). You’ll also have a few spare days in case winter weather interferes with your flight.
Other Good Thanksgiving Travel Days
- Thursday, November 28 (Thanksgiving)
- Friday, November 29
Traveling on Thanksgiving is typically a great deal, and the reason is obvious: No one wants to fly on the holiday. Most people prefer to be at their destination on Thanksgiving morning, not in transit. But if you can fly out early in the morning, you’ll usually find lower fares and emptier airports, and hopefully arrive in time for an afternoon dinner.
When it comes to traveling home, Friday is typically a solid value as long as you don’t mind a shorter visit. Saturday tends to be busier and more expensive, but still reasonable. Thinking about flying home on Sunday? Beware: Sunday is the busiest travel day of the period.
Busiest Thanksgiving Travel Days to Avoid
- Wednesday, November 27
- Saturday, November 30
- Sunday, December 1
Here’s Hipmunk’s overview of bookings share (the percentage of travelers for the period flying on that day) by Thanksgiving travel day:
Tuesday is when Thanksgiving travel ramps up, leading into what’s usually the busiest travel day of the year on Wednesday. Not only are fares high due to heavy demand, but the sheer number of people traveling means airports and aircraft will be packed. Avoid flying on these days if you can.
Best and Worst Days for Christmas Travel 2019
Unlike Thanksgiving, which is always on a Thursday, the Christmas travel schedule changes from year to year. This means historical data is less useful in predicting fares and traffic. The timing of the holiday, and how it affects school breaks and other closures, has a major impact on people’s plans.
Christmas is on a Wednesday this year, which is tricky: School schedules will likely vary, but many seem to be closed for the entire week and through New Year’s Day, which is on the following Wednesday. Businesses will obviously vary more greatly, with many probably remaining open on Monday the 23rd (the start date of Hanukkah this year), Thursday the 26th (which marks the start of Kwanzaa), and Friday the 27th. These, then, would be the perfect dates to use your leftover vacation days in order to travel with smaller crowds.
Busiest Christmas Travel Days for 2019
With a midweek Christmas this year, there are no obvious “worst” dates between the weekend peaks. According to Hipmunk, the cheapest median domestic round-trip airfare, at $247, was leaving Christmas Day, December 25, and returning the next day. Next best was a big jump up, to $322 for Tuesday through Friday, followed by Christmas Day to Sunday, at $335. On the other end of the spectrum, the most expensive round-trips were Sunday to Sunday, at $507; and Saturday to Friday, at $491. Hipmunk did not extend its coverage to the following New Year’s week, but presumably fares are high on the Sunday following Christmas. Here are the slowest and busiest travel days of the period according to the data:
The conventional take-aways here are again confirmed for major holidays:
- The lowest fares usually involve traveling on the holiday itself—an obvious case, because those are the days travelers want to already be where they’re going.
- The highest fares usually involve returning on the Sunday following the holiday—given that most people want to maximize their vacation time.
Fare differentials for other dates generally cluster in a narrow range between the maximum dates. Beyond avoiding the worst dates if you can, you’re probably better off timing your trip to maximize convenience rather than shaving a few bucks off airfares. But overall, the top three are:
Best Christmas Travel Days 2019
- Tuesday, December 24
- Wednesday, December 25
- Saturday, December 28
Worst Christmas Travel Days 2019
- Saturday, December 21
- Sunday, December 22
- Sunday, December 29
Surprisingly, a Saturday sneaks into the best options for Christmas travel this year, thanks to the stacked weekday options. When it comes to the busiest travel days around Christmas, however, the days between Christmas and New Year’s see the highest volume, which any sane travelers would will want to avoid.
Readers, when are you traveling this year? Comment below.
Editors’ Note: This story has been updated to reflect the most current information. SmarterTravel’s Carl Unger and Ed Perkins also contributed to this story.
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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Instagram @shanmcmahon.
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