Our 'questions to ask' series explains how a disruption, news, or seasonal event could impact your travel plans. We outline the main issues associated with the event and present practical, actionable advice on how you may overcome them.

Not that anybody asked but there are only 12 weeks until Christmas and eight until Thanksgiving. Which is plenty of time for present-buying but not nearly enough for securing a good deal on airfare.

Demand is rising and the holidays will be hectic times for travel - and expensive ones. Along with crowded airports and busy roads, passengers in the US can expect price hikes of up to 31% on domestic flights this season compared to 2019, according to airfare prediction app Hopper. That's mainly due to rising fuel costs and the continued fallout of a summer marked by flight delays, cancelations, and staff shortages.

To avoid the biggest price surges, generally speaking, you need to be organized months in advance. But if you haven't had the time, here's what you need to know about when to bag an airfare bargain, the cheapest dates to fly, the dates to avoid, and how to ensure a relatively hassle-free trip.

Traditionally travelers get the best price on holiday flights by booking around four weeks before their travel date. This year, given pricing and demand trends from the summer, it's best to book your flights even earlier.

"The best time to book your holiday trips is right about now," said Clint Henderson, managing editor for news at The Points Guy. "I would at least set Google Flight alerts for your ideal dates right now and then watch prices for the next few weeks. If you see a deal, however, jump on it now as deals don't last these days."

Henderson said that experts TPG suggest booking holiday travel by mid-October at the latest, and this year it might be best to book by October 10. Henderson told me, "All the analysis we've seen so far this year and historical trends suggest prices will spike beginning in mid-October, so book now or at least soonish to get the best deals."

Friends embrace in railroad station at Christmas
 Being flexible with travel dates can save you money over the holidays © Getty Images

For most of us, when we fly is dictated by work and school calendars. It's not a matter of choice. But if you do have some wiggle room to be tactical, the cheapest dates to fly for Thanksgiving are Monday, November 21, and - if you don't mind being in the air when you should be at a dinner table eating turkey - Thanksgiving Day. Both offer savings of up to $100 off peak prices, says Lindsay Schwimer from Hopper. If you can get away with a shorter itinerary, flying on Black Friday will save you about $175.

For return flights, you can cut costs if you book a flight home the week after Thanksgiving. That's Tuesday, November 29, or Wednesday, November 30, when you can shave as much as $270 off airfare. Saturday, November 26, or Sunday, November 27 are the most expensive dates and best avoided if you're on a budget.

For Christmas flights, data from Expedia shows that you can save an average of 15% off peak prices by departing the first half of Christmas week, that is any day before Thursday, December 22. For some destinations, the savings can climb up to 30-35%. To keep costs lower, consider avoiding flying on December 22, and Friday, December 23, the priciest and most in-demand days to travel.

When it comes to Christmas return flights, you'll likely save up to $40 per ticket on airfare if you fly on Tuesday, December 27 or Wednesday, December 28. The most expensive days are Monday, December 26, New Year's Day, or January 2. But if you have the time, extending your trip to January 3 can save you 20% off domestic airfares, according to Hopper.

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When booking a round trip, mixing and matching the airports and airlines you choose to fly with can seriously cut costs. Sometimes the total for two one-way tickets is less than the overall price of one round-trip ticket. "Fares don't have to be booked as returns, look at flying out with one airline and back with another to save money," says Laura Lindsay, Skyscanner’s trend and destination expert.

"You can easily compare prices on Skyscanner's cheapest month tool.” Apps like Kayak, Momondo, and AwardEx also have airfare compare tools that will help you find a good deal.

Happy grandmother and granddaughter using laptop while sitting on sofa
Having flexibility in travel is one guaranteed way to get the best fare © Getty Images/Cavan Images

Have you checked your passport?

Need a new US passport? Wait times are currently averaging about 11 weeks, which is longer than the pre-pandemic five- to seven-week average. The US State Department is encouraging people to get their applications in as soon as possible but it's inevitable there'll be disappointment for some people going overseas before the holidays.

You might get lucky with the new online passport renewal process the State Department is currently testing. Enrollment is capped monthly, without specification of future availability. Monitor the website regularly for updates on renewal availability.

"Travelers should plan and apply for their passports early to avoid the stress and extra cost of expedited processing," a Department spokesperson said. With timely effort, applicants also avoid the need for last-minute appointments at regional passport agencies, which become increasingly difficult to obtain when demand is high."

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Do you have Global Entry and TSA PreCheck?

Global Entry and TSA PreCheck will make travel faster, but getting approval for the schemes can be slow. If you have to renew your Global Entry pass with an in-person interview, do so as soon as possible. There are reports of people waiting months to be approved for Global Entry renewals. Interviews are currently taking about 90 days to schedule.

If you're looking to expedite your interview scheduling, AppointmentScanner.com charges a $29 fee to receive notifications as Global Entry interviews become available.

For the most convenient Global Entry sign up process, look for the Enrollment on Arrival office upon arrival in the US. Double check here what you'll need but the requirements will often be what you're already carrying: your passport and a valid proof of a US address which would include your driver's license.

Has airline food got worse since the pandemic?

Have you considered baggage delay insurance?

More than a million bags were mishandled by US airlines between January and June this year, and while the issue has improved somewhat in the fall, but traditionally December is the top month for airlines to lose or mishandle luggage.  If you're concerned about missing luggage while traveling home with Christmas gifts this year, you might consider booking your flights with a credit card that has baggage delay insurance. Or, if you have separate travel insurance, make sure that your coverage includes delayed or lost luggage. Different policies will have different coverages; be sure to check that your one will cover you for checked-in personal items like gifts, toiletries, and clothes.

It's also a good idea to tag your bag with your name and phone number, take a picture of your bag on your phone, and store your baggage tag receipt in a safe place. That should give you some security should your Santa sack of gifts end up on the missing list.

What to do when an airline loses your luggage

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