Expert insights to save time and money on Thanksgiving, Christmas travel

(NEW YORK) — With less than a month until Thanksgiving and just under 60 days until Christmas, ’tis officially the season for holiday travel planning.

Whether consumers are booking flights and hotels or need insight to save time and alleviate stress at the airport, travel experts shared their top tips and data with ABC News’ Good Morning America to help guide them toward the path of least resistance.

Top tips before you book your holiday flight

While some may not want to hear it, Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights and author of Take More Vacations, told GMA that “the best time to have booked holiday flights was in June.”

“I know that’s small comfort now, but think of it as a reminder for next year,” he continued, adding that “if you’re hoping to travel this upcoming summer — you’re actually starting to see some really cheap flights on those opposite season flights now.”

Last minute tips to book a flight for Thanksgiving

Keyes said the second-best time to book if you missed the off-season deals is right now, because flights are almost certainly going to get more expensive the longer people wait.

“You want to try to book it sooner rather than later because fares tend to move in one direction in the last few weeks and it’s not down,” he said.

Keyes suggests following the 21-day rule, which means backtiming when to book based on your departure date to align with an airline’s “advanced purchase requirement” found in the fine print of the fare terms and conditions.

“That usually states ‘this fare is only available if you book it at least 21 days before travel,’ ” Keyes said. “On day 20 that fare is no longer available, it’s expired, and at that point, the new cheapest fare is going to be $100 or $200 more expensive.”

“Twenty-one days before you travel is the sort of drop-dead deadline to book that flight,” he continued, adding that “if you’re hoping to travel on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, which would be Nov. 23, you’re actually going to want to try to get that flight booked by Nov. 2 at the latest.”

After that, the price will continue to go up incrementally.

The best flight departure time to book and why

“The most important thing to remember is that the earliest flight of the day has a 25% point higher on-time performance rate than the last flights of the day,” Keyes shared. “Get those morning flights cause they’re far more likely to get you there on time.”

In addition to better weather and fewer thunderstorms in the morning, Keyes explained that booking the first flight out helps mitigate risks of delays or cancellations due to any issues with an in-bound aircraft, since yours will have been parked overnight and ready at the gate.

Alternative destinations for Thanksgiving travel deals

“Thanksgiving is the best week of the entire year for international travel,” Keyes said, sharing an example in real-time that it would cost someone $118 more to fly from New York City to Omaha, Nebraska than New York City to Portugal over the week of Thanksgiving.

Plus, he said it’s a slower season than summer, with fewer crowds and lower prices, and some areas around Europe will be starting their seasonal holiday markets.

Tips to save time, money and mitigate stress at the airport over the holidays

Keyes offered a couple of his top ideas to “help keep your cool at the airport” during the chaotic holiday season.

“If you can avoid it, try not to check a bag,” he said. “It will actually really help improve your odds for many situations.”

“You’re not having to take the extra time to stand in line when you get to the airport and risk if the lines are too long or potentially missing flight. You’re not standing at carousel wondering if your bag is going to arrive,” he said. “If something happens to your flight, like a missed connection or cancellation, it is far easier to get reaccommodated if the airline doesn’t have to go find your bag in the belly of a plane and switch it to some other plane.”

Another way to reduce stress is to enroll in TSA Precheck or Global Entry, which Keyes said is particularly easy “if you have a credit card that is going to cover the cost of those applications.”

“That will let you whiz through a much shorter security line, you don’t have to take your shoes off — if you skip checking a bag and have TSA precheck, when you get through the doors of the airport to the time at your gate, it’s often about five minutes,” he explained.

But even if the TSA precheck line looks longer than the standard security checkpoint, Keyes advised staying in your lane.

“Even if the line is longer, typically it’s going to move quite a bit faster, not only because you don’t have to take off your shoes or your laptop out of your bag, but also because the TSA line tends to have more experienced travelers who know what to do,” he said. “Nothing against less experienced travelers, but they’re just going to take more time.”

If you don’t have TSA precheck, Keyes recommended checking if the airport offers the option of “letting folks schedule a time to show up at TSA, where you can essentially log on, schedule it the day before and show up for your specific block.”

“Your downside risk of a big delay is far less if you’re in one of those scheduled slots,” he said.

Best tip to easily rebook after flight delays or cancelations

“If your flight does get canceled or you miss a connection — especially if there’s bad weather — a lot of people will be calling, so don’t just stand in line at the airport to talk to a gate agent,” Keyes said. “You want to also make sure you call the airline. But specifically call the airlines international number.”

This handy hack will bypass the main U.S. hotline, Keyes said, which most everybody else would also be calling.

“If you call American Airlines’ UK number or United’s Canada number,” he said, “you’re much more likely to get right through to an agent because those have far fewer callers and those agents who are based internationally can help your case and get you rebooked just the same as U.S. based agents.”

Hotel prices and last minute holiday destination deals

The team of experts behind the travel app Hopper found that the average hotel prices per night for Thanksgiving and Christmas have increased 14% from last year.

For hotel stays, Hopper experts advise finalizing any Thanksgiving bookings by the first week of November, and for Christmas, by the first week of December.

For travelers who can be flexible with timing and locations, Hopper said consumers can “save as much as 25% by booking last minute for the holidays for hotels, particularly in big cities.”

“Hotels lower [their] prices on remaining inventory in the month prior to the check-in date so you can often find good deals in the days leading up to the holiday,” a representative for Hopper said in a statement. “However, keep in mind that you will need to be flexible with the hotel property and amenities to get a good last-minute deal.”

Best days for holiday hotel check-in

For anyone planning to stay at their destination for a few days, Hopper advised travelers to arrive on the Monday or Tuesday ahead of Thanksgiving, versus staying after the holiday.

The travel service app also found that prices for Black Friday check-ins are higher than Thanksgiving itself, with some folks looking at an additional $50 more for a post-turkey day weekend getaway.

For Christmas, Hopper found that checking in on the holiday itself could be 11% lower than checking in on Christmas Eve.

When it comes to New Year’s Eve, they noted that “hotel prices will be low until Dec. 27” but after that rates will “rise by about $30 per night.”

Overall, according to Hopper, prices will be highest the week between Christmas and New Year’s compared to the week prior.

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