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How to save money on 2022 Thanksgiving and Christmas travel

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After blazing-high prices and extraordinary levels of disruption failed to keep pandemic-weary travelers at home this summer, you should expect a similarly chaotic — and expensive — holiday travel season, industry analysts said.

The same factors that drove up prices this summer remain in play: inflation, gas prices, labor shortages and surging demand. The coronavirus, too, remains a persistent threat.

“Prices are up considerably across the board,” said Brett Keller, CEO of Priceline. Domestic round-trip airfare is 35 percent higher than last year, hotel prices are up by 11 percent, and rental car prices are roughly flat, but demand is high for all aspects of travel, he said.

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“If you haven’t booked your holiday flights, you really need to start pulling the trigger, because the longer you wait, they are going to max out in terms of seat capacity, and so you may not find a seat,” Keller said. “And two, the prices are just going to keep going up from here.”

Hayley Berg, lead economist at the travel-booking app Hopper, said the most important factor to saving money on holiday flights is to lock in a fare now, either by booking or using a tool such as Hopper’s “Price Freeze” to hold the price for a fee.

Thanksgiving prices are increasing 5 percent per week, and in early November, they will start increasing by $10 or $15 per day, Berg said. At the last minute, they will shoot up $50 per day.

“If you wait until next week to book, you could end up paying on average $30 or $40 [more] than if you book today,” Berg said.

Here’s how much different parts of your Thanksgiving and Christmas trips will cost, and how the experts recommend you save money this holiday season.

How to find cheap flights for Thanksgiving

Airlines are operating with about 96 percent of the capacity they had in 2019, but demand for flights around the holidays is expected to be higher than three years ago, Berg said.

“That demand is going to start to outstrip the amount of supply airlines have available,” Berg said. “That is going to drive up prices significantly the closer we get to both holidays.”

An average domestic round-trip flight during Thanksgiving week will cost $468, up 48 percent from 2021 and 30 percent from pre-pandemic, according to Kayak.

To save money and avoid crowds, begin your trip on Monday of Thanksgiving week. Average ticket prices departing Monday are 30 percent lower than the Saturday before and nearly 15 percent lower than Wednesday, the busiest travel days, according to Expedia.

For the return leg, consider going home on Thanksgiving Day for the cheapest fares. If that’s not possible, return on Friday or wait until the following Monday. Those two days will have fares up to 10 percent cheaper than Sunday, according to Expedia.

Busiest airports on Thanksgiving

According to Hopper’s Thanksgiving travel outlook, the top-booked domestic destinations for the holiday are Orlando, Chicago and Atlanta, and the top-booked international cities are San Juan, Puerto Rico; Cancún, Mexico; and Mexico City.

U.S. airlines have sold more than 25 million seats for Thanksgiving week alone, Hopper says, meaning you should expect airports to be crowded. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, Dallas Fort-Worth International and Denver International are projected to be the busiest airports, especially in the mornings.

Airlines and airports have resolved some of the factors that led to widespread delays and cancellations this summer, but you should still prepare for some disruption. In particular, Hopper predicts that the worst airports for delays and cancellations will be Newark Liberty International Airport, Dallas Love Field and Miami International, based on disruption rates last Thanksgiving and this summer.

Hopper recommends taking the first flight out in the day to reduce your chance of delays, and arriving at the airport early in anticipation of crowds.

How to find cheap flights for Christmas

It will be similarly important to find the sweet spot to fly for Christmas, when a domestic round-trip flight will average $574, according to Kayak. That’s 52 percent higher than 2021 and 50 percent higher than 2019.

Expedia recommends departing on the Monday or Tuesday of the week before Christmas, which falls on a Sunday this year. The most expensive days to fly are Saturday, Dec. 17, and Thursday, Dec. 22, and Thursday will see the most crowds, according to Expedia flight data. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will have the cheapest fares.

When returning home from a Christmas trip, try to fly before Wednesday, when fares will start inching up again ahead of New Year’s, according to Berg.

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How to find cheap holiday flights to Europe

If you’re looking for a hop across the pond this holiday season, expect to pay significantly more for your flight than the past two years. Airfare to Europe for Thanksgiving is averaging $586 round trip, 12 percent higher than 2021 and 4 percent higher than 2019, according to Hopper.

Christmas flight prices to Europe are up 30 percent from last year and 7 percent from 2019, with an average round trip coming in at $984. This year’s fares remain lower than 2018, however, when Christmas flights to Europe were averaging more than $1,000 thanks to high demand, according to Hopper.

If you want to save money on holiday flights to Europe, look at cities other than London, Paris, Milan and Rome, which Hopper says are seeing the highest search interest for the holidays this year.

How to find a cheap rental car

Car rentals for Thanksgiving are averaging $60 per day, with travelers reserving a car for an average of five days, according to Hopper. Christmas prices are slightly higher, at $65 per day, with the average rental lasting seven days.

Priceline estimates the average prices at slightly higher, at $84 per day. That figure would be 1 percent lower than 2021, when rental car shortages skyrocketed prices, but still 62 percent higher than 2019, according to Priceline.

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Searches on Hotels.com for lodging with free parking are up 43 percent this year, an indicator that travelers are considering road trips, according to Expedia, which owns the hotel booking site. Expedia recommends booking your rental car now and taking advantage of options with free cancellation or the option to pay upon pickup.

To find a better rate, consider looking at off-airport rental car locations, which tend to offer better prices, according to Expedia. You should also look to pick up at locations where many people are dropping off their rentals, because a higher supply can mean deals for travelers.

Hotel prices for Thanksgiving are up 14 percent from 2021, with the average room coming in at $173 a night, according to Hopper. The booking app recommends locking in those prices for Thanksgiving by booking by the first week of November if you’re headed to a popular leisure destination.

Hopper recommends checking in to your hotel by Tuesday of Thanksgiving week if you’re looking to stay through the holiday, because prices will be lower than starting your stay on Wednesday. Avoid checking in on Black Friday, which can see prices higher than on the holiday itself.

In some major cities with large hotel inventories, however, you can save up to 25 percent by waiting to book until the last minute, as long as you are flexible on location and amenities, Berg said.

In big cities, where hotels know customers are looking for last-minute deals, Berg says that competition to fill inventory can yield deals. “If you’re flexible, this is a great way to save,” Berg said. “But you do … need to be able to go with whatever the lowest price is available, which might not be on the street you want or have a pool or have a suite room available.”

A Christmas hotel will also stretch your budget this year, because rates are up 14 percent from 2021, to an average of $202 per night for a room, Hopper says. Your hotel rate will vary significantly based on when you check in, however.

The best deals can be found by arriving two or three days before Christmas, according to Hopper. If you can’t make that work, checking in on Christmas Day can save you 11 percent over Christmas Eve.

Room prices are highest the week between Christmas and New Year’s, according to Hopper, with prices rising about $30 per night after Dec. 27. On Dec. 30 or New Year’s Eve, a room will cost you $50 per night more. Hopper recommends making a hotel reservation for Christmas by the first week of December, unless you are flexible to look for a last-minute deal.

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How to find cheap holiday vacation rentals

Both demand and prices for short-term vacation rentals around the holidays are up from last year, according to AirDNA, which tracks the industry.

Thanksgiving and Christmas week prices are up by 7 percent and 9 percent, respectively, from 2021, according to AirDNA. That tracks with a double-digit increase in demand for rentals during both holidays, with “guests getting their bookings in early now there’s a little more certainty than last year,” the company said.

If you’re looking for a cheaper option, consider mountain or lake properties or those in small cities and rural areas, which have seen the least growth in price since 2021, according to AirDNA. However, larger rural properties tend to charge more in the first place.

By contrast, vacation rentals in larger cities have seen the highest growth in prices since last year, with rates increasing 13 percent for Thanksgiving Day and 16 percent for Christmas Eve, per AirDNA.

Thanksgiving and Christmas cruises

Demand for cruises is “very, very high” for the holiday period, especially since cruise lines lifted coronavirus restrictions in recent months, said David Crooks, senior vice president of product and operations for World Travel Holdings.

“Mid-August, when restrictions were lifted, was the best booking period we’ve seen in our business in a couple of years,” he said.

In most years, holiday cruises are booked in June or July, but many cruise travelers are booking late this year because of pandemic uncertainty, Crooks said. That means some rooms are still available but are going fast.

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The average price for a cruise this November is up 20 percent from 2019 and more than 10 percent higher for Christmas, he said.

With flight prices surging, Crooks recommends looking for a cruise that leaves from a port within driving distance. Even though many cruises go to the Caribbean during the holiday season, they might leave from Miami, New York or Houston, he said. On the West Coast, many cruises leave from Los Angeles for Mexico during the holidays.

Gas prices have fallen significantly since they peaked at more than $5 this June. The national average to fill up at the pump as of Oct. 31 sat at $3.76 per gallon, according to AAA. That price is 36 cents higher than a year ago but still well below summer highs.

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“Global recession fears coupled with the Biden administration’s plan to continue tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve into December has helped temper oil prices,” AAA spokesperson Andrew Gross said in a news release. “This will help take the pressure off pump prices, benefiting drivers and their wallets.”

Jet fuel prices remain 90 percent higher than in 2019 and are one reason airfare has remained stubbornly expensive, Berg said.