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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The best time to book holiday travel? ‘Basically now.’

According to the travel industry, it’s time to get nervous about the holidays, specifically Thanksgiving and Christmas travel.

By Elaine Glusac

According to the travel industry, it’s time to get nervous about the holidays, specifically Thanksgiving and Christmas travel.

Travel’s recovery, while good for the economy, means that reservations and rates for everything from flights to hotels, vacation rental homes and rental cars will likely be higher than last year, when the emergence of the omicron variant dashed many holiday plans, and in some cases even higher than in 2019.

“The pent-up demand for travel in 2022 is alive and well as we head into the holidays,” said Diana Hechler, the president of D. Tours Travel, an agency in Larchmont, New York.

Flight patterns

Historically, the holidays were always among the busiest and most expensive times to travel, and some predict this year will look more familiar than the past two.

“What we’re seeing from an airfare perspective is a renormalization,” said Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, a subscription service that finds inexpensive airfares. “Things look more like 2019 now than at any time since the pandemic began.”

He described it as a “smoothing out” of demand after the bust of the pandemic and the explosion of travel last spring, and a return to regular patterns, including consistent bumps in prices as the holidays get closer.

In other words, the era of the last-minute flight deal is over.

“The best time to have booked those Thanksgiving and Christmas flights was June and July, and the second best is basically now,” Keyes said.

Based on recent flight searches at the search engine Kayak, the average price for round-trip domestic travel during Thanksgiving week this year is $468, up nearly 50% from last year, and 30% more than in 2019. New York City, Orlando, Florida, and Las Vegas were the most searched cities.

The same data shows an even higher jump at Christmas, to $574 for the average domestic flight during Christmas week, up 50% over prepandemic fares.

With more people working remotely, many travelers have more flexibility over when to fly. In that case, you may be able to shave a few dollars off airfares by following the advice of Expedia, the online travel agency. Its data shows that flyers can save 30%, on average, by flying on the Monday before Thanksgiving compared to the prior weekend. Returning home post-feast, Friday, Nov. 25, and Monday, Nov. 28, are the cheapest days to fly, saving 5-10% compared to Sunday, Nov. 27.

Over Christmas week, Expedia found ticket prices are around 20% cheaper on Monday, Dec. 19, and Tuesday, Dec. 20, compared to Saturday, Dec. 17.

Based on 33 billion price quotes over the past five years, the booking app Hopper recommends making travel plans no later than Oct. 20. The service predicts that tickets will rise $10 a day from the end of October through Thanksgiving. The same pattern will take hold for Christmas week flights beginning in mid-November.

‘The hidden best week’

For bargains, holiday-season travelers should look abroad, particularly in late November, when domestic travel is expensive.

“I like to call Thanksgiving the hidden best week for international travel,” Keyes said. “Essentially, it’s one of the cheapest times to travel for the whole year.”

To illustrate that point, he recently priced round-trip tickets from New York City to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at $567 and to Lisbon for $429. Dublin, he added, was widely on sale from many American airports, with fares under $600 round trip.

“Also, hotels, car rentals, everything will be at low-season rates,” he added.

Still, it won’t pay to wait to make a decision on traveling abroad at Thanksgiving. Virtuoso, the consortium of travel agencies, expects bookings to surge for international travel in the next seven weeks as more than half of its international bookings by Americans for Thanksgiving travel in 2019 and 2021 were made in October and November.

Not all foreign travel will be cheaper. Caribbean destinations, for example, often experience a Thanksgiving bump.

“Generally, we recommend going against the crowds and avoiding those for the major holidays,” said Jonathan Alder, the CEO at Jonathan’s Travels, a Los Angeles-based agency, who is encouraging clients to consider travel abroad to places like Europe and Japan. “With the yen, euro and pound very low right now, travelers are definitely in store for a far better value than they would get at a beach destination.”

Rental home holidays

The pandemic gave rise to the trend of renting a vacation home, rather than gathering at a family home, according to vacation rental services.

HomeToGo said holiday rental searches are up 30% compared to before the pandemic. Average nightly rates on the platform are $395 over Thanksgiving and $424 over Christmas and New Year’s Eve, or roughly 60-70% higher than other weeks in November and December.

At AvantStay, which rents out more than 1,000 vacation homes in the United States, Thanksgiving week bookings are up almost six times those made in 2019 and Christmas week reservations are almost quadruple compared to the same period before the pandemic.

Home-like hotels are riding the intimacy wave, too. While it normally sells out one to two months before the holidays, Deer Path Inn, which is modeled on an English mansion, in Lake Forest, Illinois, booked up six months in advance this year, with Christmas reservations tripling 2019 results, which management attributes to increased family vacations and staycations for locals over the holidays.

‘Festive season’ renewed

In industry parlance, “festive season,” or the holiday period between Christmas and New Year’s when travelers book resort destination vacations, is back this year.

According to Priceline, holiday travelers are bullish on Hawaii, where flight searches are up five times year over year from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. Other popular destinations include Palm Springs, California; St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands; and Jackson, Wyoming.

Even without the huge numbers of Asian travelers visiting Hawaii as they did prepandemic, holiday rates in the Highgate hotel portfolio for properties on Maui and Oahu are 20% above 2019. Rates for Royal Lahaina Maui over Christmas start at $725.

“By this past May, space was already at a premium” in the Caribbean and Hawaii, according to Hechler, the travel adviser with D. Tours Travel.

Management of the Rosewood Bermuda expects the island resort to be three-quarters full Dec. 24-31, an increase of 20% from last year and, with rates recently starting at $625, up about $250 a night.

As an expanding list of foreign destinations reopen, many people are forgoing traditional destinations for more adventurous trips.

“Continuing the trend post-COVID lockdown, we’re sending more clients to exotic destinations,” said Avery Harris, the director of marketing for Viking Travel, an agency in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, listing client trips planned to cruise the Nile in Egypt and hike in New Zealand. “People seem to be doing more traveling for the experience, rather than traveling to relax and escape.”

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