How to save money booking last-minute holiday travel in 2020

Covid-19 changed the face of travel. Follow these steps for affordable, flexible, and safe holidays.


The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the face of travel, often for the uglier. The airline industry is certainly smarting: Commercial air travel in the U.S. is down nearly 50% from a year ago as measured by flights per day, according to FlightAware, an online service that tracks flights.

It's easy to see why. Potential travelers must mull the risks of packing their bags while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to warn that traveling increases your chances of getting and spreading Covid-19.

But if you're determined to travel over the holidays and take steps to mitigate risk, there is one piece of good news. You still have time to book holiday travel at a reasonable price. "In a normal year, it would be too late to find a cheap flight. If you booked now, you'd be hoping not to get gouged at best," says Scott Keyes, founder of email newsletter Scott's Cheap Flights. "But 2020 is not a normal year."

If you're planning on heading to Grandma's for Thanksgiving or Christmas, there's still time to book. Read on for how to find a cheap fare with an eye toward safety and flexibility.

1. Book soon to score the best price on flights

The winter holidays and the middle of summer are normally the airlines' bread-and-butter periods, and folks should typically look for sales the same ways they would shop for sales on clothes, says Keyes. "Normally I'd tell you to book winter travel at your Fourth of July barbecue and to book summer travel when you're unwrapping gifts," he says.

But with fewer folks traveling, airlines have been forced to keep fares lower for longer in order to entice people to book, and it's not too late for you to score a deal.

You're likely to find discounted fares up to 30 days before your desired departure, Keyes says. You may have a little wiggle room beyond that, but set a calendar reminder for 21 days before your desired departure — that's the day many airlines build in an automatic fare hike, he says.

Enter in your desired dates and destinations into Google Flights or the Hopper app to set up alerts for when fares to your destination drop. But don't wait too long for the perfect fare to come along. "If you haven't seen prices for your holiday flight come down by the end of October, start adjusting your expectations upward. It's extremely rare to find a cheap ticket at the last minute," Keyes says.

If you haven't seen prices for your holiday flight come down by the end of October, start adjusting your expectations upward. It's extremely rare to find a cheap ticket at the last minute.
Scott Keyes
Founder, Scott's Cheap Flights

2. Stay flexible on dates

Even if you're currently set on traveling home for the holidays, maintaining flexibility is key concern for travelers in 2020, says Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group. One helpful development: Virtually all U.S. airlines have waived change fees for passengers on domestic flights through at least the end of the year — typically about a $200 charge under nonpandemic circumstances.

That's a big deal for holiday travelers who may find plans derailed by an outbreak in their destination city or even worrisome health conditions within their own family. "If your planned Thanksgiving or Christmas visit can't take place for whatever reason, consider if the airline you plan to book on flies someplace you'd like to go," Harteveldt says.

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Travelers should be mindful that waived change fees do not mean you're free to cancel and get your money back. You'll either be asked to pick new dates or be given a voucher toward a future flight, depending on the airline's policy, which may also include restrictions on when you can use the voucher. Compare airline policies before booking.

If you'd rather not deal with planning a future trip in the case of your holiday plans falling through, weigh the extra cost of a refundable ticket. "It may be worth the peace of mind if the premium you'll pay is within your budget," Harteveldt says.  

Hotels will do everything they can to hold on to your money
Henry Harteveldt
President, Atmosphere Research Group

If you're shopping for the best price on a hotel stay, read hotel policies carefully. Some will let you cancel with a full refund as close as 24 hours before check-in. Others may require more advance notice, or have rates that aren't refundable.

Because many hotels are owned by franchisees, call and ask individual hotels about their policies rather than relying on the corporate guidelines, Harteveldt says. "Roughly 1 in 5 guests has had problems getting a refund from a hotel after Covid-related cancellations. Hotels will do everything they can to hold on to your money," he says.

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3. Know who is taking safety precautions

The airline industry wants you to know that flying these days is safer than you might think. According to the International Air Transport Association, out of the 1.2 billion passengers who have flown since the start of this year, just 44 are suspected to have contracted Covid-19 during air travel.

But depending on which airline you fly, social distancing policies may vary at the margins, and health-conscious travelers should compare policies before booking, says Keyes. Delta, for instance, has pledged to keep middle seats empty through January 2021, while American and United Airlines are now allowing for full-capacity flights.

Hotel cleanliness measures will vary widely from property to property, as some franchisees have found it costly and time-consuming to clean the rooms to the corporate standards, says Harteveldt. Before you book a hotel, check the comments on travel sites such as TripAdvisor, and search for the hotel brand name on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter: "You may be able to pierce through the PR puffery and get a more accurate sense of that the place is really like," he says.

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