10/25/2011 12:33 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When To Book Thanksgiving Travel To Get The Best Airfare

In the annals of travel mythology, it's up there next to the free upgrade or the comped Vegas hotel room: the ever-elusive inexpensive Thanksgiving airfare.

It may be more legend than reality. Travel industry sources say that deals will be hard to come by this season, not just for Thanksgiving but also for the Christmas holiday, now just two months away.

Flights this holiday are, on average, up by double-digit percentages, according to data from Orbitz. Among the top 10 Thanksgiving destinations booked through the site are San Francisco (up 18 percent this holiday), Washington, DC (up 10 percent), Orlando (up 14 percent) and New York City (up 20 percent), based on reservations through October 15. Other industry sources, including Mike Benjamin, CEO of FlightView, are forecasting an average increase of 10 percent over last year's fares.

In other words: You're not imagining that holiday travel tickets are more expensive this year.

"Some flights are just through the roof right now and I cannot imagine anyone paying for them!" says George Hobica of price-tracking website AirfareWatchdog.

And it's not just the price of the seat that's gone up, says Tony D'Astolfo, Senior VP of Travel Services at Rearden Commerce. "In the good old days most travelers just looked for the best fare and called it a day. But given the advent of ancillary fees, the most logical decision might not be as simple as grabbing the lowest airfare. Checked bags alone could add hundreds to the cost of the family's holiday flight, making it critical to calculate this cost when determining which airline offers you the best deal."

When To Book
"The best time [to book] was yesterday," quips Roger Johnson, Director Revenue Management for JetBlue. (Revenue management is industry-speak for the strategy airlines use to set ticket prices.) He claims that flexibility is key: Flying on Thanksgiving, Black Friday or at an off hour can save travelers money. "In many of our JetBlue markets that offer multiple flights per day, simply moving a preferred departure time forward or backward by an hour or two can drop the price by $100 or more each way."

Data from Bing Travel suggest the same strategy, showing that flights on Monday, November 28 or even later can be much cheaper than during peak holiday travel times. Indeed, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are traditionally known in the travel industry as the "Dead Zone," a general lull in leisure travel when discounts abound.

"During periods of very high demand like Thanksgiving, especially this year with travel costs rising, consumers need to book sooner rather than later," says Clem Bason, president of the Hotwire Group. "In addition, consumers should pay attention to the days on which they fly. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after are some of the most highly trafficked travel days of the year, and airfare prices will be steep. As a result, the best days to travel are Thanksgiving Day and the Saturday after, which could save you hundreds of dollars."

Getting the best deal also hinges on where you book suggests Hobica of AirfareWatchdog. "All airlines are not selling [the same route] at the same price, which is why your best best is to use online travel agencies such as Expedia and Orbitz."

He adds that the battle between supply and demand will continue in the run-up to Thanksgiving. "Consumers should not just search once, get discouraged and fail to recheck closer to the holiday. They may be pleasantly surprised!"