A flight expert’s hot take on holiday travel: ‘Don’t do it’

Photograph by Reet Talreja/Unsplash; Collage by Kaz Fantone/NPR

It’s stressful to fly around the holidays. Airports are packed, tickets are expensive and bad weather can cause significant flight delays and cancellations.

So, if you have to travel, is there an optimal time to do so? Scott Keyes, founder of the travel site Going.com (formerly known as Scott’s Cheap Flights), shares his recommendations, including days to avoid and the best time of day to fly.

Don’t travel around Thanksgiving and Christmas

“It’s one of the worst times to travel,” he says, due to flight disruptions, crowds at the airport and ticket prices. “My secret, best advice for travel over the holidays is: if at all possible, just don’t do it.”

If you have to fly for the holidays, do it on the day itself

“You just see far fewer people traveling then,” says Keyes. “And with fewer people, you can see lower fares and fewer disruptions,” including delays and cancellations. So think about booking tickets to depart or arrive on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.

Avoid peak travel days

For a lot of folks, the whole point of traveling during this time of year is to be with family on the actual holiday, says Keyes. “So the busiest and most crowded times [to travel] are going to be in the few days leading up to the holiday. Think Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving and December 21st, 22nd and 23rd around Christmas.”

A travel delay that stretches out over a few days, like a snowstorm, can quickly ruin a trip, he adds. “That’s when you’re going to have the most competition with other travelers” for a limited amount of seats if you’re trying to rebook a flight.

To avoid this situation, Keyes recommends flying a few days before or after these peak travel times. So instead of flying on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, you might consider traveling a few days earlier.

Travel in January — the 8th, to be precise

If you can wait, travel in January, says Keyes. You will probably have a much better flight experience.

Keyes even has a preferred date for that month: Jan. 8, he adds. “It’s my favorite date of the entire year. I circle that date on the calendar because whereas flight prices really get inflated over the Christmas-New Year period, around Jan. 8, they just fall off a cliff from the most expensive time of the entire year to the absolute cheapest.”

Ticket prices, while “extremely volatile,” can drop 75-80%, he says. For example, a nonstop, roundtrip ticket from Los Angeles to Tokyo from Dec. 22-29 costs $1,996, according to Google Flights. But if you took that trip from Jan. 10-17, the fare dips to $427 — a nearly 80% discount. And while a nonstop, roundtrip ticket from New York City to Miami from Dec. 24-Jan. 1 costs $608, it’s only $138 from Jan. 9-16 — a 77% discount.

Take an early and direct flight

“There are two types of flights that have the highest odds of getting you to where you’re going on time or at least without a major delay: early morning flights and nonstop flights,” says Keyes.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report for October, flights between 6-7 a.m. had a nearly 90% on-time departure rate, versus 64% for flights between 5-11 p.m.

With morning flights, “your plane [has been] at the airport overnight. It’s sitting there and ready to go when you get there in the morning,” he says. Afternoon flights, on the other hand, depend on planes that are flying in from somewhere else and may be subject to delays.

Direct flights have the advantage of not having layovers. “If you take a connecting flight that gets delayed an hour and a half but you only had a one-hour layover, all of a sudden you’ve missed your connecting flight and you have to get rebooked” — not an easy feat during the holiday season.

Prepare yourself for potential flight disruptions that may keep you at the airport. Keyes likes to pack “noise-canceling headphones and a little snack box, because frankly, airport food is not very memorable,” he says. And he likes to download a few books and movies to his iPad — “just in case I’m having to hang out at the airport longer than expected.”


The audio was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. The visual producer is Kaz Fantone.

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