Booking holiday flights is never a feel-good experience. It’s more of a “ripping off the Band-Aid” experience. You click “Buy now” and wince. Afterward, you avoid looking at your credit card statements and try to focus on more cheerful things, such as family and eggnog.
But this year can be less painful, if you get an early start. The secret to paying less for your flight has two parts:
- Minimize your airfare cost by booking early, traveling on nonpeak days and splitting your reservation.
- Maximize your credit card benefits by using your card’s travel perks and either paying for your flight with rewards or qualifying for a sign-up bonus or 0% annual percentage rate deal.
Here’s how you can do that.
Minimize your airfare cost
Simple economics tells you that when demand for tickets increases, airlines will increase prices. But you can generally avoid the worst of those high holiday airfares by booking early.
BUY TICKETS IN OCTOBER, AT THE LATEST
“In general, September is the best time to buy for Thanksgiving travel and October is the best time for Christmas,” says Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com.
The online travel agency, which tracks the daily average among 11,000 holiday airfares in 40 domestic markets, predicts that fares for flights around Christmas and New Year’s will dip in October by an average of $22. But in November and December, it expects those prices to increase sharply.
“It’s like playing the stock markets, in a sense,” Klee says.
Within those large-scale trends, all routes have their own ups and downs, of course. Once you know where you’re flying, watch for a drop in fares. If you see a good deal, Klee says, be prepared to buy, rather than hope for it to go lower, since the fare could spike back up at any time.
CONSIDER TRAVELING ON A HOLIDAY
Sometimes, the cheapest holiday flights depart on the holiday itself.
For Thanksgiving travel, for instance, “The best time to fly is on Thursday morning,” says Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare, a flight deals website. If you leave in the morning, he points out, you may still be able to get to your destination in time for the festivities. In its analysis, CheapAir.com also notes that Christmas Day is one of the most affordable days to fly.
If you can’t stomach the idea of spending a holiday up in the air, consider flying on other less popular travel days. For 2016, these include Nov. 25 (Black Friday), Nov. 29 (the Tuesday after Thanksgiving) and Dec. 19-21, according to CheapAir.com.
SPLIT YOUR RESERVATION
You might be traveling with a small army of relatives over the holidays, á la “Home Alone.” But that doesn’t mean you all have to be on the same airline reservation. In fact, you’ll probably save more if you split your order up.
Because of a quirk in many airline reservation systems, “Everyone on the same reservation has to be at the same price,” Seaney says. If you buy four tickets, for example, and two are at a higher price, you’ll end up paying that higher price for every ticket on the reservation. But if you make four separate reservations, you can get the lowest price possible on each ticket, he says. This can be a good strategy if you’re traveling with adults or high-school-age kids and you’re OK with sitting apart from one another.
Maximize your credit card benefits
Even if you get tickets that are relatively inexpensive compared with other holiday airfares, you still might end up paying plenty. Round-trip airfare now runs over $400 on average, according to CheapAir.com. This is where your credit cards can help.
RESEARCH YOUR CREDIT CARD’S FRINGE BENEFITS
If you’re a once-a-year kind of traveler, take stock of your credit card’s travel perks before buying plane tickets and booking the rest of your trip. Some cards offer credits for airline fees or checked baggage fees, discounts for flying with a companion, rental car coverage and trip cancellation insurance. Taking note of these can save you from paying for add-ons you’re already getting and might lower your bill considerably.
PAY WITH FLEXIBLE TRAVEL REWARDS
If you have points or miles sitting on your general travel credit card, the holiday season might be an ideal time to cash them in. Unlike with frequent-flier miles tied to a specific airline, you can redeem these more flexible rewards without worrying about limited award seat availability or poor redemption value during peak season.
Say you’ve been earning rewards on the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®. You can charge your travel expenses to those cards and then use your rewards to erase all or part of the cost. If you’ve been sitting on points from a sign-up bonus for a while, this could save you hundreds on holiday travel.
QUALIFY FOR A SIGN-UP BONUS OR 0% APR OFFER
If you can’t redeem your points or miles for a holiday flight, you can still upgrade your plastic.
Before booking your flight, look for a new credit card that offers high flat-rate rewards, a sign-up bonus, a 0% APR period on purchases or all of the above. Some triple-threat cards, including the Chase Freedom Unlimited℠ and the Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card, do it all — and don’t charge an annual fee.
Once you’ve gotten your credit card, use it to book your flight. That might be enough to help you qualify for your sign-up bonus. And if you have a 0% APR period, you’ll have more time to pay down your bill interest-free.
Putting it all together
The less you have to worry about spending money on your holiday travel this season, the better.
Practically speaking, this is probably the best argument for planning your holiday trip early. If you dread paying for travel now, you’re going to feel the same way one month from now, or two months. And during that time, airfares will be getting more expensive, and you’ll have fewer credit card strategies at your disposal.
So, as with many of life’s decisions, it’s better to get it over with early. By the time the holidays finally roll around, you won’t have to worry about it anymore.
This article first appeared in NerdWallet.