With Halloween upon us and Thanksgiving coming up, it’s a good time to take a look at important winter travel developments:
737 MAX Return to Service
The biggest travel question this winter is a carry-over from last spring, summer, and fall: when airlines will finally be able to resume flying the Boeing 737 MAX. Although new, the 737 MAX was already an important part of the fleets of many airlines, most notably American and Southwest in the U.S. and Norwegian for transatlantic service when the grounding hit. The good news is that everybody has pretty well decided what caused the two horrendous crashes; Boeing says it has the fixes in hand, and the plane will be ready by the end of the year. But Southwest and United plan on resuming flights no earlier than late January, pending a combination of mechanical modifications and pilot re-training and qualification. Norwegian could take even longer, because the Europeans have announced they won’t blindly accept FAA re-certification. My guess is that full-scale flights will start again no earlier than February.
A related question: Will you fly the recertified 737 MAX? Airlines are expecting that, at least for a while, lots of travelers would answer, “No.” They’re promising that anyone who booked a flight on a different plane that was subsequently switched to a MAX can rebook with no change penalty. That shouldn’t happen very often. The airlines are pretty good about figuring out which plane they will use for each flight, and once set, changes are few. And they’re being really cautious about rescheduling the MAX until they’re sure.
Another issue that won’t die, Brexit, remains a muddle. Although October 31 is supposedly a “date certain” for Brexit, further delay looks like the real outcome. If anything, the economic uncertainty may benefit U.S. air travelers through lower fares and hotel rates.
Where to Travel
With all the various uncertainties floating around, I expect to see some really great airfares and good hotel rates for winter travel to major cities — now through mid-December and again after January 2. If you like a big North American city, Atlanta, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Vancouver are generally comfortable all winter. Boston, Chicago, New York, Toronto, and other big centers present a rich menu of activities along with the ice and snow. Don’t forget about Europe, either: You can expect some really good airfares, and winter weather in England, Italy, and Spain is usually not bad. Of course, if you’re headed for a beach or ski destination, you can expect the usual high season prices.
When to Buy Tickets
United Airlines recently announced the results of mining its own fare data for a year:
1. The best time to buy is three months ahead of travel.
2. Buying super early is a good idea only for peak holidays. Otherwise, airlines do not load their lowest-fare inventory a full year ahead; they dole it out along the way in response to demands.
3. Tuesday is the least expensive day to fly, and the best time to score a low fare is between 6 a.m. and noon — time zone not specified.
These findings generally agree with other similar reports. My only disagreement — partial — is that waiting until about 30 days in advance is not a bad gamble; fares don’t go up much between 90 days and 30 days and waiting may let you catch a great flash sale deal. But don’t wait too long: Fares go up rapidly within 30 days of departure. I would also add George Hobica’s longstanding advice: “When you see a good deal, pounce.” Also, if you have to book late and can’t find any good deals, check for air/hotel packages, which often include seat availability at reasonable fares when airlines say only the expensive seats are left.
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