From the best time to purchase airline tickets to the best days to take to the skies (or the highway), we’ve got start-today tips you’ll be thankful for.
If you’re one of the more than 54 million Americans who are predicted to be traveling over the Thanksgiving 2019 holiday, you already know your journey won’t be as easy as “over the river and through the woods.” But even with long lines at airport security and bumper-to-bumper traffic on major thoroughfares looming ahead, there are a number of data-driven tips that can help you search out deals, avoid the worst crowds, and arrive at your holiday destination with your appetite and enthusiasm intact.
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The good news is it’s not too late to save time and money on Thanksgiving travel. In fact, now through the end of October is the ideal window to research flights. To take some of the uncertainty out of the process, AAA recommends that you consider consulting a travel agent and purchasing trip insurance. If you’re planning to fly for the holiday, the folks at the global travel search engine Skyscanner.com suggest that you set up price alerts now (as in, stop reading this for a second and set up price alerts on your preferred flight booking app), and that you consider price alerts for a range of dates, as prices can be significantly higher or lower as one gets closer to Turkey Day itself. (See “How to Choose the Best Travel Days,” below.)
The best time to buy airline tickets
“Holiday travelers should make their plans now and begin booking their flights for Thanksgiving and Christmas for the best deals and availability,” says Paula Twidale, vice president, AAA Travel. The ideal window for getting reasonable prices (under $500 round-trip for domestic flights, according to AAA) is between 30 and 60 days prior to Thanksgiving. A quick look at the calendar will alert you that the time is literally now: Book by October 27. (AAA makes its predictions and recommendations based on an analysis of flight booking data for domestic US travel for Thanksgiving from 2016 to 2018.)
It bears mentioning, however, that AAA predicts that it is possible to nab airfares averaging $482 by waiting until the last minute (in this case, purchasing your ticket seven to 13 days before Thanksgiving, or November 11 to 17). But purchasing at the last minute will always be a game of chance, so be forewarned. “Procrastinating travelers may be able to find last-minute deals on flights close to the holidays, as airlines look to fill their last few remaining seats, but flight availability for these peak travel weeks will be very limited by that time,” says Twidale.
How to choose the best travel days
Which days you choose to fly will have a major impact on your airfare and your airport experience.
Traditionally, the Monday before Thanksgiving is the best day to fly for both airfare (averaging under $500 round-trip this year, according to AAA) and for lighter crowds than later that week. AAA notes that the Sunday before Thanksgiving is the best day for travelers who seek the lightest possible crowds and don’t care about spending a bit more.
The biggest airfare savings will be found by flying on Thanksgiving day itself, averaging around $450 round-trip. Those who have flown on major holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas often enjoy not only the savings but also the elbow room and festive vibe.
The busiest and priciest days to fly are, of course, the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
Over the years, research has consistently suggested that if you can delay your return flight until the Monday after Thanksgiving, you’ll save money and airport hassle. (That strategy, of course, is often most practical for retirees or adults traveling without school-age kids.)
If you’ve ever wondered how many of your fellow Thanksgiving travelers share your best-day-to-fly preferences, Skyscanner.com recently crunched the numbers on domestic Thanksgiving bookings over the past few years and reports that nearly 60 percent of Americans prefer to fly midweek, departing on the Tuesday or Wednesday before Thanksgiving and returning between Friday and Sunday – that certainly explains the massive airport crowds. Conversely, only 20 percent fly on Thanksgiving itself, and only 10 percent are “week-long travelers” who leave for their Thanksgiving destination on the Saturday or Sunday before the holiday.
Secrets to a successful Thanksgiving road trip
When it comes to hitting the road for the holiday, the same days that are best – and worst – for flying apply to driving as well. If you can pack up the car and roll out before the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and return the Monday after, you’ll have a relatively relaxing drive. If, like so many of domestic travelers, you can’t avoid driving on Tuesday or Wednesday and returning Saturday or Sunday, consider driving at night or in the very early morning – and let your relatives know that you may need a catnap while they’re watching the Lions' game.