2020 Holiday Travel: When to Book and How to Save

October 27, 2020 Updated: November 2, 2020

Come the end of the year, between wintertime holidays, school breaks, and end-of-year vacations, the demand for travel tends to increase. People fly home to visit their families, take some much-needed time off, or travel for important year-end errands—and with all those people funneling into airports, train stations, and bus terminals at the same time, prices naturally trend skyward.

But while the holiday season is typically an expensive time of year to travel, nothing else about 2020 has been typical—so how is holiday travel shaping up this year? Expect the travel landscape to look a bit different this holiday season. 

Amtrak Cuts 50 Percent Of Routes Amid Coronavirus Pandemic
Amtrak is providing contactless booking and boarding, as well as a real-time capacity indicator, to show which trains are more or less crowded. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

How Has the Pandemic Changed Holiday Travel and Booking?

The pandemic has generated major changes in the travel industry. If you head to an airport or train station this holiday season for the first time since stay-home orders hit, expect to be required to wear a face mask at all times and to encounter a variety of protocols to accommodate social distancing and added hygiene efforts. 

All travel companies have adapted new operational and cleanliness standards, though to varying degrees; for example, some airlines are blocking middle seats and spacing passengers throughout the plane and some are filling the planes to full capacity. 

Take Amtrak as another example. Some of the changes passengers will see this holiday season include a real-time capacity indicator, which displays a volume percentage next to each route to provide insight into which trains are more or less crowded; comprehensive disinfection protocols in partnership with RB, the makers of Lysol, for trains, stations, and lounges; a contactless booking and boarding experience using the Amtrak app; and protective plastic barriers at customer counters at Amtrak’s busiest stations. 

It seems there are some upsides, though, to the pandemic’s effect on travel. Scott’s Cheap Flights reports: “Air travel is down 70% from 2019. The number of flight searches is down over 50%. With far fewer people booking holiday flights this year, Christmas fares have precipitously dropped. For example, in the past few weeks we’ve found roundtrip holiday flights to Nashville for $118, Boston for $51, and New Orleans for $98, all hundreds of dollars less than normal Christmas-time airfare. In fact, at SCF we’ve found more cheap Christmas flights in 2020 than we have in the past five years combined.” 

While cheap flights have been around for years, they point out, cheap holiday flights are a result of the pandemic and its subsequent travel limitations. They don’t expect the lower-than-typical prices to be nearly as prevalent next year.

Another fortunate change is the fact that most airlines are automatically waiving change fees on all new bookings, even for bottom-of-the-barrel tickets in economy. There used to be hundreds of dollars in fees involved in changing flights, but that penalty has been axed this year for obvious reasons—travelers would feel even less secure booking travel if they knew they couldn’t get out of it should change of plans arise. 

Flexibility is important to the 2020 traveler since uncertainty is at an all-time high. Safety and a commitment to responsible travel take top priority this year. 

Still, a recent study from vacation rental search engine HomeToGo suggests the holiday season ahead will be a busy one, with travelers gravitating toward mountain escapes, road trips, shorter stays, and smaller group sizes. 

“While uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic looms, demand continues to grow for rural mountain retreats and is shifting from former top destinations for holiday travel,” the company said in a release. “Travelers are also planning earlier, as HomeToGo’s study finds that bookings and search interest for stays between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day are up by more than 65 percent compared to the same period last year.”

HomeToGo reports that in October, they saw search and booking activity levels matching what would be typical of late November or early December, which have been the peak holiday-travel booking periods in previous years. More travelers seem to be interested in staying in cabins, shying away from major cities and popular holiday attractions, and opting to stay closer to natural areas and outdoor activities. 

According to vacation rental search engine HomeToGo, interest in cabins in rural areas has increased. (Penny Richard/Shutterstock)

When Should Travelers Book Flights and Trains?

When it comes to booking flights, trains, and other ticketed transportation, earlier seems to be better this year, as is the case most years. 

“Customers are strongly encouraged to plan ahead and book early to guarantee available tickets,” says Doug Duvall, Amtrak’s assistant vice president of corporate communications. “Bookings will be limited to allow for more physical distancing in seating areas.” Amtrak is limiting bookings on reserved trains to allow for more space between passengers, so the earlier you book your holiday travel, the better chance you have of securing a seat when and where you want one. 

Scott’s Cheap Flights has another perspective. They share that two common mistakes travelers make when booking flights is thinking there’s a specific and predictable date when fares will be cheapest, or assuming that the further out you book, the cheaper the fares will be. Both of these are common misconceptions that do not ring true across the board, they say. There is no definite “cheapest time to book” and no guarantee that booking early means you won’t overpay.

“If you’re hoping for a cheap flight, the best way to strategize is by using what I call Goldilocks Windows: the timeframes when cheap flights are most likely to pop up,” founder Scott Keyes shared in a release. “For domestic flights, it’s typically one to three months ahead of travel, while for international flights it’s two to eight months in advance. Because holiday travel is so popular, though, you’ll want to add a few months to those recommendations—more like three to six months out for domestic flights, and four to ten months for international.”

He points out that we’re pretty much down to the wire now, but “I wouldn’t panic yet,” he says. “Remember, far fewer people are traveling this year. As a result, I’d expect to see cheap holiday flights popping up closer to departure. My recommendation if you’re looking for a holiday flight this year: hold out through the end of October for a cheap fare. If one doesn’t pop up by then, book by early November in order to not risk a last-minute fare gouging.”

The fact that last-minute bookings tend to be most expensive holds true even this year, so only book super-close to departure if and when you absolutely have to. The same goes for hotels and Airbnbs—accommodations are likely to fill up fast since many are limiting capacity or enacting new protocols. 

Tips for Saving Money

Travelers are looking to save money this holiday season more than ever before because for many, the pandemic has brought with it some unwelcome and unexpected financial squeezes. Traveling during a pandemic is stressful enough as it is; don’t put added strain on the experience by paying top dollar. 

One surefire money-saving tip is to set fare alerts to track the prices of the flights you’re looking at; Google Flights has a great button for this. Search a few different flight and date options for your trip, then toggle on the price-tracking tool so you get notified if and when the price fluctuates. You can keep an eye on whether the fare is trending up, down, or staying the same in order to make a more informed booking decision. 

Google Flights also has a tool that displays whether the current price of a flight is low, high, or typical compared to its usual price. If the price is low or typical, you can trust that it’s a good time to book and should move forward before anything changes. If the price is high, it’s up to you whether you want to gamble on the possibility of the price lowering, or go ahead and book before it shoots even higher.

Another money-saving tactic may be available to more people this year due to the COVID-induced explosion in remote schedules and teleworking—if you can fly or take the train on less-popular travel days, you may be able to get better deals and more space.

“Every year, our most popular travel day is the Wednesday leading up to Thanksgiving and the Sunday following Thanksgiving,” shares Duvall. “With many working flexible schedules, we’d recommend that customers consider traveling outside of those peak periods.”

The holiday season always marks a peak travel period, but opting to travel on days further out from the holidays can potentially help to lower your costs and expose you to smaller crowds.

Skye Sherman is a freelance travel writer based in West Palm Beach, Fla. She covers news, transit, and international destinations for a variety of outlets. You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter @skyesherman.