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Holiday Travel: Tips on Flight Bookings, Travel Times and Points Status

You might want to adjust your typical travel plans this year

by JT Genter

November 13, 2023

Holiday Travel / Photo: Kseyale/Adobe Stock

The holidays are once again upon us. That means many of us are taking to the skies, roads and rails to visit family and friends.

As if crowded airports and flights weren’t already stressful enough, air-traffic-control understaffing, the potential of severe weather, and airline operational fragility all have the potential to cause flight cancellations and missed family gatherings. Add in changes to airline policies and loyalty programs, and you might want to adjust your typical holiday travel plans this year. Here are some tips on how to do so.

Book Early and Fly Early

If you haven’t booked your holiday travel, now’s the time to act. We’re already beyond the cheapest time to book, and prices will likely only increase from here.

Hayley Berg, an economist and product lead at Hopper, a travel and pricing prediction app, anticipates that airfare prices “could increase by over $40 per day during the final week before Christmas departures.” She suggests that booking flights earlier can help you save money.

Plus, there’s no reason to wait. As long as you avoid booking basic economy fares, many airlines will let you make no-fee alterations to your flight if your schedule changes.

Speaking of schedules, no one likes a 4 a.m. wake-up alarm—especially if you’re taking a rare day off. But the stats are clear: Morning flights are much less likely to be delayed or canceled as flight crews and aircraft should be positioned and ready to start the day. However, delays and issues can snowball as the day goes on, leading to flight cancellations.

If you can’t stomach the idea of missing a family gathering, book your arrival a day or two before the day you need to be there. That way, you’ll still be able to make it if your flight is significantly delayed or canceled.

Arrange to fly a few days before the holiday, requesting to work remotely. Not only will this help you avoid crowds and missing gatherings, but flying in earlier is one of the easiest ways to save on flight costs.

In this year’s holiday travel analysis, Hopper found that the Monday before Thanksgiving is one of the cheapest days to fly during the holidays—unless you want to risk flying in on Thanksgiving Day. Stretch your visit to the Tuesday after Thanksgiving for the cheapest flights back.

Christmas flights are priced differently this year because Christmas Day falls on a Monday. Friday, December 22, is the most expensive day to fly as travelers seek to maximize the long weekend. The cheapest flights this year can be found by flying on Tuesday, December 19, or waiting until Christmas Eve.

Passengers stranded at London Heathrow because of canceled flights due to weather / Photo: Elizabeth Leyden/Alamy Stock Photo

Once your flight is booked, take one extra step to track your flight prices. It may seem backward to track prices after booking, but this technique is now critical in getting the best flight deal.

Kyle Potter, executive editor at Thrifty Traveler, tells Business Traveler that this practice has helped him “recoup at least $1,000 in airfares in the last two years.” Potter suggests using a flight-price tracker such as Google Flights to set an alert for your travel dates—or even your exact flight if you’re locked into that schedule. Then, if you’re alerted to a price drop, rebook your flight to claim the price difference in the form of a travel credit. According to Potter, although this practice is certainly not lucrative for the airlines, “they know and accept—perhaps begrudgingly—travelers are doing it.

“It’s just the cost of doing business in this new, post-pandemic world of air travel,” he adds. Next, track your bookings using a program like TripIt or AwardWallet. These tools will monitor your bookings and email you about any schedule changes or flight cancellations. Download the app for helpful alerts such as check-in and boarding reminders, gate-change alerts, delay notifications, baggage-claim numbers and hotel phone numbers.

If you could not secure a morning flight, there’s still a chance you can take an earlier one. Several airlines now permit passengers to stand by without any additional fees, allowing you to board an earlier flight if seats are available. Although empty seats may be scarce during peak travel times, there’s a chance that some travelers may oversleep, leaving you with the opportunity to nab an empty seat and travel earlier.

Boost Your Elite Status Before Year-End

For frequent flyers, the end of the calendar year may mean anxiety about reaching that next level of elite status. Plus, recent and upcoming changes to loyalty programs may be taking that anxiety to new heights.

In September, Delta announced sweeping and controversial changes to how travelers earn Delta Medallion elite status. Although the airline is dropping the mileage requirement—goodbye to the need for year-end mileage runs—travelers will need to spend significantly more with Delta to get the same elite status.

Even though these changes won’t take effect until 2024, many Delta elites are already checking their other options. Mark Ross-Smith, CEO of Loyalty Status Co., notes that “the recent Delta SkyMiles program changes have increased status-match demand to other airlines by up to 8,000 percent.” The allure of a status match is obvious. “Passengers are looking to try something new and different,” observes Ross-Smith, “but they don’t want to start from scratch with no status.”

In addition to status matches, travelers can utilize co-branded credit cards to shortcut their way to elite status. Airlines and hotels increasingly incentivize travelers to spend on their cards and reward them with elite status credits. “Co-brand credit cards and elite status holders are the two largest revenue streams for airline loyalty programs,” says Ross-Smith. “It’s no surprise that airlines are seeking to better leverage the two assets.” And if you’re hoping to elevate your elite status, you have plenty of ways to do so before the year-end.

American Airlines’ new Loyalty Point program is arguably the best elite status option for high spenders. Every $1 you make in purchases earns you one Loyalty Point toward status, with no caps. That means you can spend your way to elite status without stepping foot on a plane. Just keep in mind that you have until February 29 to (re)qualify for AAdvantage elite status.

And even though Delta recently announced a revamp of its elite status program, SkyMiles members can still spend their way to a Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver through December 31. You’ll need to spend $25,000 on a qualifying SkyMiles card to earn an MQD waiver for up to Platinum Medallion status. The Diamond Medallion MQD waiver requires spending $250,000.

United MileagePlus members can spend on eligible United credit cards to earn up to 15,000 Premier Qualifying Points—enough for Premier Platinum status. However, most United cards have a much lower cap on earning PQPs, so check your card terms carefully.

Most Marriott Bonvoy credit cards offer cardholders 15 Elite Night Credits each year. If you don’t already have a Marriott Bonvoy credit card, this could be an excellent reason to sign up by year-end. Or skip the hassle of earning Elite Night Credits and get the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express card to get automatic Platinum Elite status.

Likewise, the World of Hyatt credit card grants cardholders five qualifying night credits yearly.

Cardholders also earn two-night credits for every $5,000 spent during the year. So it might be worth putting your holiday purchases on the card to hit the next threshold.