Holiday flights will be pricey and packed. Here are 5 things to know before you book
Time is running out if you're hoping to book a relatively inexpensive flight over the holidays. Airlines say that demand is sky high and, as a result, airfares are soaring.
For example, nonstop flights from Chicago to any of the New York airports for Thanksgiving (Nov. 22-27) are more than $500 round trip. Flights from Los Angeles to Seattle on the same dates are well above $500 round trip, too.
The potent combination has gleeful airline executives forecasting big profits for the fourth quarter of the year, on the heels of a much better than expected third quarter, in which a huge surge in summer air travel demand led the three largest airlines, American, Delta and United, to rake in a combined profit of more than $2 billion, according the airlines' earnings reports.
1. Demand for holiday travel is "very strong"
"It's going to be a very strong holiday season — Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's," said Delta CEO Ed Bastian on a recent conference call with analysts and reporters announcing his airline's third-quarter results. He says advance holiday season bookings are up significantly over last year and "demand for air travel remains very strong."
The airlines didn't provide figures for their advance bookings, but industry experts and online travel booking sites say the number of people flying over the November and December holidays this year could be at or above pre-pandemic levels.
Pandemic-weary travelers are jamming into packed planes despite higher prices, and they don't seem fazed by airline operational problems and staffing shortages that led to widespread flight delays and cancellations over the summer.
2. After two years of delaying travel, "consumers are getting out and seeing the world"
"After two years of delaying travel, it is clear that consumers are getting out and seeing the world," Bastian said. He and other executives across the airline industry remain confident people will continue to spend on travel despite economic headwinds, including worries about inflation and a possible recession, as post-pandemic consumers seem to be prioritizing spending on experiences, such as travel.
"I know there is some pretty significant macro shifts going on in spending — out of goods and into services, which we are a beneficiary of," Bastian said. "We're glad to see people back on the road."
At United Airlines, chief commercial officer Andrew Nocella sees strong holiday demand too.
"We are definitely seeing a lot of strength for the holidays or obviously approaching the Thanksgiving time period, and our bookings are incredibly strong," Nocella said in a conference call last week announcing United's strong third-quarter profit.
But he noted that there is a significant shift in how and when people are traveling for the holidays.
"The bookings are a little bit different this year in that they're more spread out across multiple days than they were on any single day," said Nocella, adding that remote work allows travelers to leave for the holidays earlier and stay at their destinations longer. So instead of leaving the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day and returning the Sunday after, bookings on those days are a little lighter this year and more people are booking flights for the Monday and Tuesday before and after Thanksgiving.
"That definitely is a new travel pattern for us," Nocella said. "And we're also seeing that develop for the Christmas time period as well."
3. Buy now because prices are only going up
As for airfares?
"Overall, the Thanksgiving and Christmas airfares are much higher than last year," says Hayley Berg, lead economist for the travel search and booking app Hopper. She says fares are already up 40% or more on some routes over last year, which was was still significantly impacted by the pandemic, and fares are at least 20%-30% higher than in 2019.
"We are seeing that airfare to those top destinations, the ones that are the highest demand at the holidays, are much higher than they typically are at this time of year," Berg says, adding "and they're only going to increase from here."
Berg says that while demand for holiday travel this year may be at or above pre-pandemic levels, airlines will have close to 15% fewer flights than they did in 2019.
4. Having flexible travel plans "is critical." Travelers can save a lot by flying on Monday before the holiday and returning a few days after
"We're going to have fewer flights available and more travelers looking to either go home or go on vacation for the holidays," Berg says. "That means that you might be paying a much higher price and not be able to get a seat on the specific flight that you want to take."
Berg says many more travelers than usual seem to be waiting until the last minute to book their travel this year, but she says there's a risk in doing so.
"With fewer flights available this year, that's going to mean you're going to have fewer options the later you book and those options are going to be significantly more expensive."
To get the best deals, "being flexible on when you fly is critical," Berg advises. "Most travelers are going to want to fly a few days before the holiday and return a few days after. That means prices on those dates are going to be extremely high, capacity is going to sell out, airports are going to be chaotic."
But she says travelers can save a lot by flying on the Monday before the holiday and returning a few days after, or by traveling on the holiday itself (Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day).
5. There will be chaos with flights delayed and canceled
And if you're thinking about traveling over the holidays, Berg recommends booking now because prices are only going to go up, although she notes that many post-pandemic travelers seem willing to pay higher fares. And she says more travelers are also willing to pay for some peace of mind, by buying travel insurance or flight disruption protection, and Berg says some travelers may need it.
"This holiday season, we will see chaos and disruption," Berg says. "We do expect the holiday season to be very busy and that does mean we'll see higher cancellation and delay rates. That said, we're not expecting to see such high volumes of cancellations and delays like we saw this summer."
Across the industry, airlines say they've been hiring and training more pilots, flight attendants and other employees to prevent the staffing shortages that caused widespread disruptions over the summer. And they've reduced the number of flights they're offering to better match their schedules to staffing level realities. But some in the industry aren't so sure.
"Right now, management continues to stuff the holiday turkey with uncertainty," says Dennis Tajer, a 737 pilot for American Airlines and spokesman for the pilots union there, the Allied Pilots Association. He says the airline has not fixed the problematic scheduling that left little room for error when bad weather hits or other problems arise.
"I can tell you, I just got my schedule for November," Tajer tells NPR. "Our schedules are loaded up to the max again. There's not going to be much room (for error). Yeah, they canceled a bunch of flights in November, but we're not seeing them change the way they schedule the airline day of."
Unions for pilots, flight attendants and other workers at other airlines raise similar concerns, but Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who sharply criticized the airlinesfor the high number of flight cancellations and delays over the summer, said last week that the airlines do seem better prepared now for the upcoming holiday travel season.
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