Planning your holiday travel? Here's how to get the best deals.

Americans are catching a break on the cost of flying for the busy holiday travel season

Airfares were down more than 13% last month compared to a year ago, according to Consumer Price Index data. Flights are also modestly less pricey than just before the pandemic, with airfares some 5% lower than they were in October 2019.

Domestic, roundtrip airfares around Thanksgiving are $266 on average, down about 10% compared to a year prior, according to travel booking site Hopper. “Prices are significantly lower” this year, Hopper spokesperson Lindsay Schwimer told CBS MoneyWatch. 

To be sure, it’s late in the game to book Thanksgiving travel. The best time to get deals on airfare is typically six to eight weeks ahead of the travel date, according to experts. 

“For Thanksgiving, it’s the last minute. But if you’re flexible with your destination and dates, travelers can find some really good last minute deals,” Schwimer said.

But there are still opportunities to save on Christmas travel relative to last year.  “Overall, prices are down from the holidays compared to last year and pre-pandemic. We’re seeing some good deals,” Schwimer said. 

Average domestic, roundtrip airfares around Christmas are $324, down 15% from last year and 11% lower than the same period in 2019.

Data from flight aggregator and search site Kayak shows that prices for Christmastime flights are down 23% compared to a year ago.

“Flights were pretty expensive last year, so they’re not necessarily cheap, but they have come down significantly,”Kayla Deloache,  Kayak’s consumer travel trends expert, told CBS MoneyWatch. 

Why are fares cheaper?

Fares are down despite strong demand, with more Americans than ever expected to travel over the holidays this year. Although that puts upward pressure on fares, jet fuel prices have come down and airlines have increased their capacity, keeping ticket costs in check.

“We’ve seen a shift back to normalcy in terms of prices, and a lot of the domestic airline capacity has come back to what we saw pre-pandemic, which means more planes flying than what we saw in past few years,” Schwimer said.

Another reason airfares are lower, according to travel rewards expert Sally French, is due to the airline practice of unbundling fares. To offer different tiered tickets, airlines these days usually offer passengers a low base fare and ask them to pay extra for features like the ability to check a bag, select a seat assignment, use wifi, or eat and drink during the flight.

“We are seeing lower base airfares, and things that are available à la carte, which is not necessarily a bad thing. If you don’t check bags or get a drink, you can get a lower airfare,” French said. 

When to book, when to fly

If you see a good deal, book it right away, travel experts advise. The U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to allow customers to cancel their reservations for no penalty within 24 hours of making a reservation. 

“If you see a flight you expect to take, book it. You can sleep on it and cancel it with no penalty,” French said. 

Around Thanksgiving, people typically prefer to travel the Wednesday before the holiday and return home the following Sunday, making those two of the busiest — and priciest — days of the year to travel domestically. 

“Those are the most difficult days to find reasonable airfares,” said Sheldon Jacobson, a computer scientist who closely follows airline data. 

For a better shot at finding a deal, look for flights on Thanksgiving Day. “If you travel in the morning, the airport is not as busy, you can arrive and have dinner later in the afternoon or evening,” he said.

Also consider returning home late in the day on Friday, before the weekend rush. “You can catch some excellent fares because the airlines are flying anyway, and if they don’t fill the seats they’ll find a way to attract people,” Jacobson added. 

Extending the holiday can also yield savings if travelers return home on the Monday or Tuesday after Thanksgiving. 

Travel Deal Tuesday

In addition to traveling on Tuesday, search for deals on future flights for even more savings. The Tuesday following Thanksgiving offers the greatest number of flight deals, according to Hopper data. This year, for example, the flight site is expecting discounts of up to 80% on trips to destinations including Hawaii, Orlando, Florida, Phoenix and Las Vegas.

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