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The best time to buy Christmas flights, according to Google

Google Flights has new advice for finding cheap holiday airfare

(Illustration by Kat Brooks/The Washington Post; iStock)

If you live for finding the best airfare, it’s time to pause your leaf-peeping plans and shift your focus to the winter holidays.

In a report from Google Flights published Monday, new data suggests travelers who are looking for cheaper Christmas flights should start shopping earlier than the company recommended in last year’s data analysis.

For travel starting in mid-December, “you’re most likely to find deals around early October,” the report from group product manager James Byers said. “Average prices tend to be lowest 71 days before departure — a big change from our 2022 insights, which found that average prices were lowest just 22 days before departure.”

That 2022 report published last summer also said price drops for domestic Christmas travel happened within 20 and 88 days before the holiday. Now, the company is predicting travelers will find the typical low price range 54 to 78 days before takeoff.

Set your calendar for early October

For Christmas 2023, that means the typical low prices for airfare should occur around the first week of October through the end of the month. According to Google, Oct. 12 should have the lowest airfare for those who want to travel the Friday before Christmas (Dec. 22). Oct. 15 is supposed to be the best booking day for those flying on the holiday itself.

What hasn’t changed from the 2022 report, Byers said, is that avoiding weekend departures and choosing layover flights versus nonstops are some of the best ways to save on airfare — holidays and otherwise.

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71 days out is a recommendation, not a rule

Scott Keyes, founder of the cheap flights booking site, said he’d need to see Google’s methodology to weigh in on their latest data. Still, he cautions travelers not to circle 71 days in advance as the predictably cheapest day. Instead, travelers should view that timeline as the point when cheap flights have their highest odds of popping up.

According to Going’s analysis, travelers want to look for the so-called Goldilocks Window (not too early, not too late) to get the cheapest airfare. For domestic flights, Keyes says that’s one to three months in advance for off-peak trips and three to six months for peak season travel, like Christmas and New Year’s. Google’s 71-days-before-takeoff price nadir is in line with Going’s off-peak Goldilocks Window estimate, but “it’s just far less applicable for peak season travel,” Keyes said in an email.

We are in the Goldilocks Window for holiday flights now, and Keyes says we’ve been seeing deals pop up accordingly. He cites a few recent round-trip fares on full-service airlines, like a Dallas-to-Chicago nonstop for $158, Ohio airports to New York City nonstop for $148, and Seattle to Boston nonstop in business class for $988.

But as we get closer to Christmas, “those cheap flights are likely to dry up and travelers will be left choosing between somewhat expensive and ridiculously expensive fares,” Keyes said.

Where travelers are going this winter

In addition to price predictions, Google Flights also dug into winter travel trends based on its most-searched destinations. For trips departing from U.S. airports between Dec. 20 and Jan. 5 you can expect to see crowds heading to Cancun, Miami/Fort Lauderdale, London, New York, Tokyo, San Juan, Honolulu, Orlando, Paris and Los Angeles.

That’s in line with Expedia air searches over the past week, which rank Miami, Orlando, Los Angeles, New York and San Juan as the top trending destinations for the Christmas and New Year’s Eve holidays, an Expedia Group spokesperson told The Washington Post.

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Flights and hotel prices are trending down

Kayla Inserra, a consumer travel trends expert for the online travel agency Kayak, says price outlooks are looking positive for those traveling domestic this winter. Hotel and rental car rates are seeing price drops up to 16 percent compared to the same time last year, she said, and domestic airfare is down 5 percent.

Like Google Flights, Inserra recommends setting price alerts now for your preferred travel dates and striking when you’re comfortable. To further pursue savings, you can stalk airfare even after you’ve booked and watch for better fares. Thanks to the pandemic’s impact on airline booking policies, it’s easy to cancel, get a flight credit or adjust your trip without fees.

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