Holiday travel plans are usually made many months in advance. But this year, we’ve already hit mid-November and travelers say they still have no idea what their Thanksgiving or winter holiday plans will look like.
Given the pandemic, there are many reasons to hold off booking holiday travel this year: “My husband is not comfortable with flying so we will most likely take a last minute road trip depending on how we feel,” @coleyraeh said in response to a poll on the @cntraveler Instagram. “A low case rate the two weeks after Thanksgiving will help me decide on Christmas travel,” said @kate_nem. User @lanmoura says they’re “waiting to see if [my preferred] airline (Southwest) will continue to leave the middle seat empty after 11/30.” And for others, like @beneluxetravel, it’s a matter of evolving travel restrictions—and if a visit home will even be feasible when the holidays roll around.
It might also come down to putting off the inevitable: “I know [going home] is not the responsible thing to do, but I know my family will be really bummed out, so I’m waiting for someone else in the family to pull the plug,” says @littleriverupstate.
Suffice to say, there are many reasons to wait until the very last minute to book holiday travel this year, whether you’re thinking about heading home, or somewhere else. If you’re holding off on booking, here are a few things to keep in mind as those big dates inch closer.
Flight options may be limited (and pricey)
Though flight prices have seriously dropped during the pandemic, we’ve already seen prices creep higher around holidays like the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Those dates have also drawn record numbers of pandemic travelers.
Expect the same trend to continue. “COVID-19 has significantly impacted where travelers feel comfortable visiting through the end of 2020, but two things are clear,” says CEO of Dollar Flight Club, Jesse Neugarten, referencing a recent survey the brand conducted. “One, that 85 percent of travelers will only travel domestically over the holidays, and two, that over the holidays we’ll see the most travelers flying since March of this year.”
Not only will there be an uptick in demand, but there will be fewer seats on offer in the first place. Many airlines reduced their schedules earlier in the pandemic, and though some have been able to add holiday flights—United Airlines will operate 1,400 more over Thanksgiving weekend—there will be less inventory than in years past. It will be more competitive to snag the time, route, and number of stops you want, which prices will reflect. (Some travelers report getting notifications about additional stops being added to holiday flights they have already booked as well; others are being hit with last-minute time changes, or even cancellations.)
Neugarten says to take advantage of flexible cancellation policies right now, and to book as soon as you see a good deal, knowing you can cancel later. If for any reason you must wait, he says the best window for finding holiday flight deals is wide—from four months up to three weeks before travel dates—with prices likely to jump up at the very last minute. He also suggests being flexible with your travel dates: “If you can avoid peak days, like December 21, 22, or 29, you’ll save hundreds of dollars and hours of your precious time.”
Accommodations will be more readily available
The market for hotel rooms and rentals will counter what happens with air travel: There’s greater availability than ever, and better deals. “In a typical year, now would be the time to press the panic button and book anything with an opening given dwindling availability,” says Josh Geller, luxury travel advisor at Embark Beyond. “This year, however, still presents many great options and attractive rate opportunities. A number of properties are offering fantastic values, with the majority waiving a typical minimum night stay requirement.”
Geller says it’s still better to book sooner rather than later, as the very best stays will likely book up quickest (and that’s even truer if, say, the entire family wants to take over a spacious rental, or you have very strict dates; any must-haves will likely limit your options). But if you’re just trying to get out of town, find your own place near family, or perhaps plotting a staycation, this may be the year to snag that reservation at a fraction of the price, and there will no doubt be more last minute offerings than in the past. (“If there was ever a year to get a deal for the coveted ‘festive season’ this is it!” adds Geller.)
If you must wait until the very last minute to make a decision, flexibility is key, Geller says: “There will likely still be very good options available in the 25th hour this year, it’s just hard to say what will still be on the table. I would advise keeping an open mind and trying to set expectations.”
Travel restrictions may change at any time
Plan as you might, keep in mind that many factors will be beyond our control this year. Travel restrictions, be they international or domestic, may spring up or change quickly.
While this may be a reason to wait until the last minute to book travel, it’s important to note that cases can skyrocket, and local business and travel regulations can change, even while you’re on a trip. For those reasons, waiting to book doesn’t necessarily put you in the clear.
Rather, book refundable options early on, and be prepared for the unexpected. If you are leaving the country, it’s crucial to have a Plan B in case borders suddenly close (bring anything essential you might need, and think through what that might mean for you or your family, just in case). If you are just traveling even one state over, but have circumstances that would make it impossible to quarantine for two weeks should a restriction like that be slapped onto travelers (perhaps an in-person job or child care), think carefully about the risk you’re taking.
Staying home doesn’t mean the holidays are canceled
Whether you book and cancel at the last minute, or decide not to book holiday travel at all, remember that staying home for the holidays doesn’t mean you’ve lost your chance for the trip you want to take. Consider getting away or visiting family after the holiday rush—we’re huge proponents of reinventing the holiday calendar this year. By booking your holiday trip in January or February, you can avoid the anticipated airport crowds, busier roads, and competition for accommodations. In a year during which many of us are working from home and have more flexible schedules, there are few reasons to remain beholden to the traditional holiday schedule.