In a year like no other, when indoor gatherings are suspect and family gatherings may be scrapped, who knows what the holidays will bring. Fortunately, people still pondering plans — and yet to buy airline tickets — may not be forced to pay for their delay.
The usual rise in holiday airfare prices may look more like a bunny hill than a black-diamond peak this year.
"Airlines are not being as punitive with fares for Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's. Fares are higher, depending on days you fly on, but not as egregious as it has been in years past," said Kyle Potter, executive editor at Thrifty Traveler.
In addition to the generally lower fares for the upcoming holidays, airlines might not hike prices as high as is typical for those who make flight arrangements late.
Potter said that for years, airlines have penalized customers who book three to four weeks ahead of departure by raising prices. Generally, last-minute fliers have been business travelers, whose companies foot the bill. Increasingly, leisure travelers are waiting longer to make plans in an uncertain world.
Thrifty Traveler, a Minneapolis-based flight-deal and travel-education company, has found that as business travel dries up and leisure travelers remain wary of flying, the three- to four-week window has shrunk down to one week. There's no telling if that new trend will hold for the holidays, but Potter said, "I wouldn't be surprised if airlines are more lenient, not punishing people for booking last-minute flights home."
Travelers can still find good prices now, even for Thanksgiving travel.
The best way to ferret out deals, according to Potter, is to be flexible and plan a buffer between the days of the flights and the holiday. Choose the Saturday before Thanksgiving rather than Wednesday, for instance. He also recommends using Google Flights (google.com/flights), which has a calendar showing the cheapest days to fly.
Scott Keyes of Scott's Cheap Flights noted that air travel is down about 70% from last year. "Airlines are not seeing nearly the demand they would, so they are having to do the unthinkable, which is offer cheap holiday flights."
Keyes' company, which sends alerts about flight deals, has found more cheap flights around the winter holidays this year than it has seen in the past five years combined.
Keyes thinks deals may continue to pop up as the holidays approach, but offers a general time frame for optimal shopping. For Thanksgiving flights, he says to book sooner rather than later; one month out from Thanksgiving should be a firm deadline. For December holidays, he suggests people start looking for deals now. If nothing materializes by the end of October, book by early November in order to avoid possible last-minute fare gouging.
Keyes noted another positive for people seeking deals: All tickets are currently flexible. "Across the board, airlines are waiving change fees on all new bookings in 2020, even for basic economy fares," he said. "So you can book that Thanksgiving flight or that Christmas flight — book it in pencil, not permanent marker."
Such flexibility means that if a cheaper fare shows up later, travelers can always switch flights and even airlines. Or if the coronavirus is on an uptick at a destination, people can skip the flight penalty-free and visit next spring.
Low prices for holiday flights are unique to this pandemic, Keyes said. Once the current crisis is over and life returns to normal, airline prices will bounce back, too. Next year's holiday flights will likely cost more, but Keyes wants people to remember an overarching truth: "We have been living for years now in the golden age of cheap flights. That was true before the pandemic and it will be true after the pandemic, as well."