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A Winning Strategy for Saving on Your Holiday Flight: Book Early, Use the Right Credit Card

Booking holiday flights is never a feel-good experience. It’s more of a “ripping off the Band-Aid” experience.You click“Buy now” and wince. Afterward, you avoid looking at your credit card statements and try to focus on more cheerfulthings, such as family and eggnog.

But this year canbe less painful, if you get an early start. The secret to paying less for your flighthas two parts:

- Minimize your airfare cost by booking early, traveling on nonpeak days and splitting your reservation.
- Maximize your credit card benefitsby using your card’s travel perks and either paying for your flightwith rewards or qualifying fora sign-up bonus or 0% annual percentage rate deal.

Here’s how you can do that.

Minimize your airfare cost

Simple economics tells you that when demand for tickets increases, airlines will increase prices.But you can generally avoid the worst of those high holiday airfares by booking early.

Buy tickets in October, at the latest

“In general, September is the best time to buy for Thanksgiving travel and October is the best time for Christmas,” says Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com.

The online travel agency, which tracks the daily average among 11,000 holiday airfares in 40 domestic markets, predicts that fares for flights around Christmas and New Year’s will dip in October by an average of $22. But in November and December,it expects those prices to increase sharply.

“It’s like playing the stock markets, in a sense,” Klee says.

Within those large-scale trends, all routes have their own ups and downs, of course. Once you know where you’re flying, watch for adropin fares. If you see a good deal, Klee says, be prepared to buy, rather than hopefor it to go lower, since the fare couldspike back up at any time.

Consider traveling on a holiday

Sometimes, the cheapest holiday flights depart on the holiday itself.

For Thanksgiving travel, for instance, “The best time to fly is on Thursday morning,” says Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare, a flight deals website. If you leave in the morning, he points out, you maystill be able to get to your destinationin time for the festivities. In its analysis, CheapAir.com also notes that Christmas Day is one of the most affordable days to fly.

If you can’t stomach the idea of spending a holiday up in the air, consider flying on other less popular travel days. For 2016, these include Nov. 25 (Black Friday), Nov. 29 (the Tuesday after Thanksgiving) andDec. 19-21, according to CheapAir.com.

Split your reservation

You might be travelingwith a small army of relativesover the holidays, á la “Home Alone.” But that doesn’t mean you all have to be on the same airline reservation. In fact, you’ll probably save more if you split your order up.

Because of a quirk in many airline reservation systems, “Everyone on the same reservation has to be at the same price,” Seaney says. If you buyfour tickets, for example, and two areat a higher price, you’ll end up paying thathigher price for every ticket on the reservation. But if youmake four separate reservations, you canget the lowest price possible on each ticket, he says. This canbe a good strategyif you’re traveling with adults or high-school-age kids and you’re OK with sitting apart from oneanother.

Maximize your credit card benefits

Even if you get tickets that are relatively inexpensive compared withother holiday airfares, you still might end up paying plenty. Round-trip airfare now runs over $400 on average, according to CheapAir.com. This is whereyour credit cards can help.

Researchyour credit card’s fringe benefits

If you’re a once-a-year kind of traveler, take stock of your credit card’s travel perksbefore buying planetickets and booking the rest of your trip. Somecards offer credits for airline fees or checked baggage fees, discounts for flying with a companion, rental car coverage and trip cancellation insurance. Taking note of these can save you from paying for add-onsyou’re already getting and might lower your bill considerably.

Pay withflexible travel rewards

If youhavepoints or miles sitting on your generaltravel credit card, the holiday season might bean ideal time tocash them in. Unlike with frequent-flier miles tied to a specific airline, you can redeem these more flexible rewards without worrying about limited award seat availability or poorredemption value during peak season.

Sayyou’ve been earning rewards on the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Cardor the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®. You can charge your travel expensesto those cards and then use your rewards to erase all or part of the cost. If you’ve been sitting on points fromasign-up bonus for a while, this could save you hundreds onholiday travel.

Qualify for asign-up bonus or0% APR offer

If you can’t redeem your points or miles for a holiday flight,you can still upgrade your plastic.

Before booking your flight, look for a new credit card that offers high flat-rate rewards, asign-up bonus, a0% APRperiod on purchases or all of the above. Sometriple-threat cards, including theChase Freedom Unlimited℠ and theCapital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card, do it all — and don’t chargean annual fee.

Once you’ve gotten your credit card, use it to book your flight. That might be enough to help you qualify foryour sign-up bonus. And if you have a 0% APR period, you’ll have more time to pay down your bill interest-free.

Putting it all together

The less you have to worryabout spending money on your holiday travelthis season, the better.

Practically speaking, this is probably the best argument for planning your holiday trip early.If you dread paying fortravel now,you’re going tofeel the same way one month from now, or two months. And during that time, airfares will be getting more expensive, andyou’ll have fewer credit card strategies at your disposal.

So, as with many of life’s decisions, it’s better to get it over with early. By the time the holidays finally roll around, you won’t have to worry about it anymore.

Claire Tsosieis a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email:claire@nerdwallet.com. Twitter:@ideclaire7.

The article A Winning Strategy for Saving on Your Holiday Flight: Book Early, Use the Right Credit Card originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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