2021 Holiday Travel Guide Report

Hopper breaks down what to expect for the upcoming holiday season, when to buy, fly and guidance for travelers when booking holiday travel plans.

Adit Damodaran - Oct. 12, 2021

It might seem like the summer is just coming to a close, but consumers may already want to be thinking about their holiday travel plans.

For Americans planning to travel this holiday season, Hopper is releasing its annual Holiday Travel Guidance Report, breaking down our top tips for 2021 holiday travel with recommendations for when to buy, fly, drive, and how to book with ultimate flexibility.

Our top tip? Start tracking prices now. We’re expecting to see the lowest prices for holiday travel available in mid-September. For those ready to book, take advantage of the cheapest fares available now, particularly for the Christmas holiday.

Summary:

Search Demand:

Thanksgiving 

  • Domestic: Currently around 1.5% of daily domestic flight searches are for Thanksgiving weekend departures. This is comparable to 2020 (1.4%), but under 2019 (2.2%).

  • International: At 1.7% of daily international flight searches, searches for Thanksgiving international travel are under both 2019 levels (2.5%) and even 2020 levels (2%). International travel for Thanksgiving weekend is thus appearing the least in search demand of the four travel periods we examined (Domestic/International for Thanksgiving/Christmas). 

Christmas

  • Domestic: Domestic flight searches for Christmas travel, like Thanksgiving travel, are trending similarly to 2020. Currently 2.3% of daily domestic flight searches are for Christmas week departures, which lags 2019 levels (4.2%) but matches 2020.

  • International: Currently 5.2% of international searches are for Christmas travel, similar to 5.1% this time in 2020 but down from 8% this time in 2019. In 2020 we saw more last minute (no more than two weeks before departure) search demand for international Christmas travel and we anticipate a similar trend in 2021 as well.

Traffic Forecast (TSA Throughput)

  • Delta Variant: TSA Throughput has increased from just 40% of 2019 levels at the start of the year to around 80% of 2019 levels this summer. It has since tapered off to about 77% of 2019 passenger levels, which is a slight decrease but may be a more accurate reflection of concerns regarding the Delta Variant than comparing current travel volumes to mid-summer volumes.

  • Thanksgiving: For Thanksgiving, we anticipate a daily throughput around 1.9m travelers. This would be around 75% of 2019 passenger levels (~2.5m/day) and double 2020 levels (~900k/day).

  • Christmas: For Christmas, we’re expecting 2m travellers each day, or around 80% of 2019 levels (~2.5m/day) and again double 2020 levels (~1m/day).

Airfare Forecast:

Thanksgiving  

  • Domestic: For Thanksgiving, travelers should expect domestic airfare of around $300/round-trip, which is up 23% from 2020 ($245) but down 11% from 2019 ($335).

  • International: We expect International airfare for Thanksgiving 2021 to be at historic lows of just $620/round-trip, down 11% from 2020 (~$700) and down 17% from 2019 (~$750).

  • When to Buy: Book no later than Halloween for the best prices. Afterwards, travelers should expect domestic flight prices to spike 40% (to around $400/round-trip) leading up to the week of Thanksgiving, and an additional 25% (to around $500/round-trip) for any last minute (week of Thanksgiving) fares. We’re forecasting last minute international fares (week of Thanksgiving) to be around $820, or 32% more expensive than those who book before prices spike.

  • When to Fly: The cheapest time to depart on domestic flights before Thanksgiving Day is Monday, November 22nd at $246/round-trip. International flights will be cheapest on Wednesday, November 24th at $584/round-trip. Travelers returning on Sunday, November 28th, should expect to pay the most for both domestic and international flights. 

Christmas 

  • Domestic: Domestic airfare for Christmas flights has already trended higher than 2019 levels at this time, priced more comparably to 2018 airfare thus far. With domestic airfare for Christmas at around $390 round-trip, airfare is up 55% from 2020 ($250) and equivalent to 2019’s average domestic airfare ($390), suggesting airlines may be anticipating stronger Christmas travel relative to Thanksgiving.

  • International: International airfare for Christmas will average $926 round-trip, up 30% from $710 in 2020 and down 30% from $1,207 in 2019.

  • When to Buy: No Later than Thanksgiving. The best deals for both domestic and international travel appear in mid-September, around 90-100 days in advance. In general, booking domestic flights three weeks in advance (or by Thanksgiving at the latest), should help travelers avoid the biggest price spikes. We expect domestic prices to spike 7% (to $460) two weeks prior to Christmas, and another 11% (to $510) in the final week. For international travel, prices begin rising the most around 35 days in advance (around Thanksgiving), so travelers should aim to book Christmas flights no later than Thanksgiving at the latest to avoid the biggest price increases. We expect international airfare to increase 23% (or +$230 from $990 to $1220) over the course of December. 

  • When to Fly: Tuesday, December 21st is the cheapest day to depart on domestic flights before Christmas Eve at $338 round-trip, with Thursday, December 23rd being the cheapest day to depart on an international flight at $834 round-trip. Similar to Thanksgiving, the following Sunday (Sunday, December 26th) is likely to be the most expensive date for both domestic and international return flights.

Thanksgiving

  • Most Booked: The most booked domestic destinations for Thanksgiving are 1.) Orlando, FL; 2.) Dallas, TX; 3.) Phoenix, AZ. The most booked international destinations are 1.) Cancun, Mexico; 2.) San Juan, Puerto Rico; 3.) Mexico City, Mexico.

  • Most Searched: The most searched domestic destinations for Thanksgiving are 1.) Los Angeles, CA; 2.) Atlanta, GA; 3.) Denver, CO. The most searched domestic destinations for Thanksgiving are 1.) San Juan, Puerto Rico; 2.) London, UK; 3.) Cancun, Mexico (#3).

Christmas

  • Most Booked: The most booked domestic destinations for Christmas are 1.) Orlando, FL; 2.) Los Angeles, CA; 3.) New York City, NY (#3). The most booked international destinations for Christmas are 1.) Mexico City, Mexico; 2.) London, UK; 3.) Dublin, Ireland (#3). With the exception of London, Dublin, and Accra (Ghana), international Christmas bookings skew heavily towards Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. 

  • Most Searched: The most searched domestic destinations for Christmas are 1.) Denver, CO; 2.) Los Angeles, CA; 3.) Miami, FL. The most searched international destinations for Christmas are 1.) San Juan, Puerto Rico; 2.) Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; 3.) Mexico City, Mexico.

Hotels:

  • We forecast the national average nightly hotel rate on Thanksgiving weekend to be $187/night, up 3% from $181/night on Labor Day weekend. 

  • We forecast the national average nightly hotel rate for Christmas to be $193/night, up 7% from $181/night on Labor Day weekend. 

Rental Cars 

  • Rental car prices are up 78% thus far this year from $45/day to $80/day, but the good news for travelers is that prices have cooled in recent months from their mid-summer high of $120/day ahead of the July 4th weekend. Prices are down 33% off their summer peak, and continue to trend steadily down ahead of the holiday season.

Holiday Travel Demand

Here we look at the percent of flight searches each day for a future holiday, which aligns closely with search advance (how long before departing on their trip do travelers search for their flights). In our August 2021 Consumer Airfare Index, we noted that travelers on average booked their flights 35 days in advance. That figure is now down to 33 days on average, down from 43 days this time in 2019 but up from 30 days this time in 2020. Booking (or searching) on a shorter advance signals traveller uncertainty about departure dates further in the future, and may be related to hesitancy over the Delta variant. 

Thanksgiving

Domestic: Currently around 1.5% of daily domestic flight searches are for Thanksgiving weekend departures. This is comparable to 2020 (1.4%), but under 2019 (2.2%). In other words, travelers in 2019 were more likely to be looking for Thanksgiving travel at this time. We’re expecting a similar trend to 2020, where searches rise considerably closer to the date of the holiday. 

Search
Domestic Search Demand for Thanksgiving 2021

International: A similar trend can be observed with international flight searches for Thanksgiving weekend. At 1.7% of daily international flight searches, searches for Thanksgiving international travel are under 2019 levels (2.5%) and even 2020 levels (2%). International travel for Thanksgiving weekend is thus appearing the least in search demand of the four travel periods we examined (Domestic/International for Thanksgiving/Christmas), with restrictions on nonessential travel to the EU being reimposed in late August.

International
International Search Demand for Thanksgiving 2021

Christmas

Domestic: Domestic flight searches for Christmas travel, like Thanksgiving travel, are trending similarly to 2020. Currently 2.3% of daily domestic flight searches are for Christmas week departures, which lags 2019 levels (4.2%) but matches 2020. Typically by Christmas week, 1 in every 4 flight searches are for departures that same week. Similar to Thanksgiving, we expect search demand to trend more strongly in November and December relative to 2019 with the lower search and booking advance we’ve seen in recent weeks.

Domestic
Domestic Search Demand for Christmas 2021

International: International searches for Christmas Travel are trending very similarly to 2020, but similar to domestic searches, are lagging 2019 levels. Currently 5.2% of international searches are for Christmas travel, compared to 5.1% this time in 2020 and 8% this time in 2019. In 2020 we saw more last minute (no more than two weeks before departure) search demand for international Christmas travel and we anticipate a similar trend in 2021 as well.

International
International Search Demand for Christmas 2021

TSA Throughput - 2019 Comparison & Holiday Forecast 

Search demand gives us a good indication of traveller sentiment and intent around holiday travel, but TSA Throughput is often a more direct way to compare how many travelers are taking flights in different years. Here we compare TSA Throughput in 2021 to 2019 by dividing the two, which helps to account for the seasonality in travel volumes.

TSA Throughput has increased from just 40% of 2019 levels at the start of the year to around 80% of 2019 levels this summer. It has since tapered off to about 77% of 2019 passenger levels, which is a slight decrease but may be a more accurate reflection of concerns regarding the Delta Variant than comparing current travel volumes to mid-summer volumes (which always decline seasonally).

TSA
2021 TSA throughput as a % of 2019

In this graphic, we make a rough forecast of TSA Throughput through the end of the year based on 2019 seasonal/holiday trends as well as current booking trends (which incorporates the current effect of the Delta Variant on travel bookings). The forecast is of course subject to change with new travel restrictions or developments with regards to variants of Covid-19.

TSA
TSA Throughput, Holiday Forecast

For Thanksgiving, we anticipate a daily throughput around 1.9m travelers. This would be around 75% of 2019 passenger levels (~2.5m/day) and double 2020 levels (~900k/day).

For Christmas, we’re expecting 2m travelers each day, or around 80% of 2019 levels (~2.5m/day) and again double 2020 levels (~1m/day).

Pricing Outlook:

Thanksgiving

When to Buy? (Domestic)

For Thanksgiving, travelers should expect domestic airfare of around $300/round-trip, which is up 23% from 2020 ($245) but down 11% from 2019 ($335). We recommend booking no later than Halloween, or around three weeks (21 days) before Thanksgiving. Afterwards, travelers should expect domestic flight prices to spike 40% (to around $400/round-trip) leading up to the week of Thanksgiving, and an additional 25% (to around $500/round-trip) for any last minute (week of Thanksgiving) fares.

Average
Average round-trip airfare domestic Thanksgiving, by booking date

When to Buy? (International)

We expect International airfare for Thanksgiving 2021 to be at historic lows of just $620/round-trip, down 11% from 2020 (~$700) and down 17% from 2019 (~$750). These tickets should also be booked no later than the last week of October (~35 days in advance) for the best prices. We’re forecasting last minute fares (week of Thanksgiving) to be around $820, or 32% more expensive than those who book before prices spike.

Average
Average round-trip international airfare for Thanksgiving, by booking date

Christmas

When to Buy? (Domestic)

Domestic airfare for Christmas flights has already trended higher than 2019 levels at this time, priced more comparably to 2018 airfare thus far. Currently, airfare for Christmas is $363/round-trip round-trip, down 12% from $415 round-trip at the beginning of September. This would make average domestic airfare for Christmas (including our forecast for October, November, and December) closer to $390 round-trip, which is equivalent to 2019’s average domestic airfare ($390), and up 55% from 2020 ($250). With Christmas travel, the best deals tend to appear rather early at around 100 to 90 days in advance (around mid-September), although we saw an exception in 2020 where fares between 40 and 20 days in advance had great deals. In general, booking three weeks in advance (or by Thanksgiving at the latest), should help travelers avoid the biggest price spikes. We expect prices to spike 7% (to $460) two weeks prior to Christmas, and another 11% (to $510) in the final week.

Average
Average domestic round-trip airfare for Christmas, by booking date

When to Buy? (International)

Currently, international airfare is $840 round-trip, approximately equivalent to what it was at the beginning of September. This makes average international airfare for Christmas $926 round-trip, up 30% from $710 in 2020 and down 30% from $1207 in 2019. Similar to domestic Christmas flights, the best deals begin to appear 100 to 90 days in advance (mid-September). Prices begin rising the most around 35 days in advance (around Thanksgiving), so travelers should aim to book Christmas flights no later than Thanksgiving at the latest to avoid the biggest price increases. We expect international airfare to increase 23% (or +$230 from $990 to $1220) over the course of December.

Average
Average international airfare by booking date

When to Fly? (Domestic & International)

Thanksgiving

The cheapest time to depart on domestic flights before Thanksgiving Day is Monday, November 22nd at $246/round-trip. International flights will be cheapest on Wednesday, November 24th at $584/round-trip. While this graphic shows total round-trip costs by departure date (and not return date), travelers returning on Sunday, November 28th, should expect to pay the most for both domestic and international flights. These prices are also reflective of current prices, and not higher last minute fares.

When
When to fly: Thanksgiving

Christmas

Tuesday, December 21st is the cheapest day to depart on domestic flights before Christmas Eve at $338/round-trip, with Thursday, December 23rd being the cheapest day to depart on an international flight at $834/round-trip. Similar to Thanksgiving, the following Sunday (Sunday, December 26th) is likely to be the most expensive date for both domestic and international return flights.

When
When to fly: Christmas

Trending Holiday Destinations

Most Booked Destinations for Thanksgiving

The most booked domestic destinations for Thanksgiving are Orlando, FL (#1), Dallas, TX (#2), and Phoenix, AZ (#3). The most booked international destinations for Thanksgiving are Cancun, Mexico (#1), San Juan, Puerto Rico (#2), and Mexico City, Mexico (#3). International bookings for Thanksgiving are entirely on this side of the pond, with travelers preferring destinations closer to home such as Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Most
Most Booked Destinations for Thanksgiving

Most Booked Destinations for Christmas

The most booked domestic destinations for Christmas are Orlando, FL (#1), Los Angeles, CA (#2), and New York City, NY (#3). The most booked international destinations for Christmas are Mexico City, Mexico (#1), London, UK (#2), and Dublin, Ireland (#3). With the exception of London, Dublin, and Accra (Ghana), international Christmas bookings skew heavily towards Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. 

Most
Most Booked Destinations for Christmas

Most Searched Destinations 

Thanksgiving (Domestic)

Los Angeles, CA (#1) was the most searched domestic destination for Thanksgiving, followed by Atlanta, GA (#2), and Denver, CO (#3).

Most
Most Searched Domestic Destinations for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving (International)

San Juan, Puerto Rico (#1) was the most searched international destination for Thanksgiving, followed by London, UK (#2), and Cancun, Mexico (#3).

Most
Most Searched Destinations for Thanksgiving (International)

Christmas (Domestic)

Los Angeles, (#1) was the most searched domestic destination for Christmas, followed by Miami, FL (#2) and Fort Lauderdale, FL, (#3).

Most
Most Searched Domestic Destinations for Christmas

Christmas (International)

San Juan, Puerto Rico (#1) was the most searched international destination for Christmas, followed by Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (#2), and Mexico City, Mexico (#3).

Most
Most Searched International Destinations for Christmas

Hotel Pricing Outlook

The average nightly hotel rate in the U.S. is at $175/night in the most recent week, up about 40% from $127/night at the start of the year. Based on current nationwide pricing trends for future hotel reservations, prices will continue to rise steadily another 9% towards fall break in mid-October, peaking at $190/night before declining ahead of Thanksgiving. We expect hotel prices around Thanksgiving weekend to be $187/night. Afterwards, there will be a short dip in prices to $180/night before Christmas and New Year’s, where we anticipate nationwide prices to climb another 7% to $193/night. 

National
National Average Hotel Prices by Week of Booking

Rental Cars Pricing Outlook

Rental car prices are up 78% thus far this year from $45/day to $80/day, but the good news for travelers is that prices have cooled in recent months from their mid-summer high of $120/day ahead of the July 4th weekend. Prices are down 33% off their summer peak, and continue to trend steadily down ahead of the holiday season. 

Rental
Rental Cars Pricing by Dates

Top Tips for Booking 2021 Holiday Travel:

1. Start tracking prices now - Hopper recommends tracking holiday prices now and buying as soon as you see a good deal. Use a price monitoring tool like Hopper and get alerted if and when a good deal becomes available.  

2. Book Thanksgiving and Winter Holiday flights before Halloween - Great deals are available now for round-trip airfare for both Thanksgiving and Christmastime. If you’re ready to book holiday plans, now is the time to buy. If you’re unsure about holiday plans and need more time to book, we advise purchasing flights by the end of October (at the latest) for the best deals. If you can't book just yet, we expect there to still be price drops, even as we get closer to the holidays. 

3. Lock in a good holiday price now, and book later - If you need more time to plan, take advantage of flexible booking tools like Hopper’s Price Freeze feature to capitalize on great prices available now, while having the time and flexibility to see how things play out closer to the holidays.

3. Book with Flexibility - If you’re still unsure of your plans, consider purchasing a refundable or changeable fare for added flexibility this year. Be sure to check your airline and hotel’s policies before booking your holiday plans.

4. Cancel for Any Reason - Cancel your flight for any reason up to 24 prior to departure on Hopper and receive at least 80% of your ticket cost back. If a traveler ends up utilizing this plan, Hopper pays any fees due to the airline. 

5. Add Change for Any Reason - Instantly change your flight, including date, time, and airline, for any reason up to 24 hours prior to your scheduled departure with no added fees. 

6. Avoid trip disruptions with Rebooking Guarantee - The last thing you want is to worry about a travel hiccup over the holidays. With Hopper’s Rebooking Guarantee, if your trip is delayed or you miss your connection, you can instantly rebook the next flight to their destination in the Hopper app – no matter the airline – at no additional cost. 

7. Prepare in advance - Be sure to research your destination and get familiar with COVID protocols & any restrictions in advance of booking holiday travel. Also, be sure to develop a travel safety plan with your family ahead of your holiday trip. We always recommend that travelers check the latest CDC guidelines for updated COVID travel guidance.

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