Spring break flights: Where and how to find deals

“It’s not too late, but I would plan to book soon,” says Scott Keyes, the…

“It’s not too late, but I would plan to book soon,” says Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights and author of “Take More Vacations.”

According to travel industry insiders, the potential to find a good deal for spring break exists, but the trip may not be exactly what you were envisioning. If you know where everybody else is going and have some flexibility in your planning, you can at least improve your odds.

Here’s the information you need to book a trip for spring break ASAP.

If you’re less than 3 weeks away, it’s too late

The pandemic has changed how airlines lure customers. Namely, with fewer business travelers out there buying expensive last-minute tickets, airlines are offering more last-minute deals that appeal to leisure travelers who are prone to shopping in reaction to coronavirus patterns.

“You see more last-minute deals because airlines know that people who are buying last-minute tickets has shifted,” Keyes says.

However, “that doesn’t mean the odds are good, especially if you have your heart set on one specific date or a specific destination,” Keyes adds.

Many flights will follow predictable pricing trends. “We still find that prices spike in the two weeks leading up to a flight’s departure, rising 25% two weeks out and another 30% in the final week,” Hopper economist Adit Damodaran said in an email.

Jen Moyse, senior director of product for the travel app TripIt, said their customers are spending more time than pre-pandemic considering and planning trips, a mentality that may not work if you have to jump on a bargain before it’s gone.

“We’ve seen travelers booking trips closer to their departure date, which is usually the least likely time to snag a deal,” Moyse said.

For the best airfare prices for most trips, Damodaran said, a good rule of thumb is to book no later than three weeks in advance for a domestic flight and three to five weeks ahead for international.

Where spring break flights cost the most

As Terika L. Haynes, owner of Dynamite Travel, has worked on spring break trips for clients, she has noticed that “prices definitely appear to be higher than last year,” she said.

With more people traveling for spring break this year than in 2020 or 2021, “the demand is super high,” Haynes said. “And whenever demand is high for travel, it directly affects the price.”

That rings true looking at Hopper hotel and flight bookings for spring break travel, which the company defines as March 6-20. Because most people want to hit the beach, ski slopes or the (balmy) great outdoors, the most expensive destinations are Destin, Fla., and Santa Barbara, Calif.; Salt Lake City, Jackson, Wyo., and Vail, Colo.; and the Grand Canyon and Palm Springs, Calif.

A glimmer of hope from Mark Crossey, the U.S. travel expert at Skyscanner, is that sometimes a spike in demand can work in your favor. Crossey said carriers may respond to rising interest in certain routes by adding more flights to their schedule, which can drive down the price.

Where the most people are going

Many Americans are traveling with the weather in mind for spring break.

According to Hopper data, the most popular destinations for spring break include sunny spots like Los Angeles, Miami, Las Vegas, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. (Major cities absent of warm weather also topped the list, including New York City, London and Chicago.)

“Warm sells,” said Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of the cruise news and review site Cruise Critic. “Everybody wants to go somewhere warm.”

In the cruise world, the most popular spring break trips are Caribbean voyages. Haynes said the Caribbean is the biggest spring break destination for her clients as well, with Turks and Caicos, Mexico and the Dominican Republic dominating.

“For Mexico and Dominican Republic, it’s especially appealing to families because there aren’t as many testing requirements to go in,” Haynes said. “When you’re talking about families with three or four kids, it can really start adding up with all of those covid tests.”

Before the pandemic, Haynes booked tons of Orlando spring break trips for families drawn to amusement parks such as Disney World and Universal Studios. That hasn’t been the case this year. Instead, “we’ve been super busy with people requesting ski vacations,” she says.

Orlando will be popular despite pandemic concerns. The city is the second-most-booked destination on Skyscanner for U.S. travelers between March 6 and 27, behind Las Vegas. Other hot spots include Cancún, Miami and New York.

Pick your travel dates — and keep the location flexible

Those who haven’t booked their spring break trips yet aren’t out of luck. There are affordable options out there, particularly for those with flexibility.

With flight booking in general, “you’ve got three main areas of flexibility,” Keyes said. “When you book your flights, where you go and when you go.”

Most spring break travel is determined by a school schedule, which doesn’t leave much flexibility when you take your trip. Keyes said to focus on where you go and when you book.

The travel period is rapidly approaching, and “booking sooner rather than later ups your odds of getting a good deal,” he said. However, don’t pull the trigger on a flight ASAP because you’re worried about them rising (unless you’re shopping for a specific destination with specific trip dates). You can wait and follow the deals.

“If you say ‘I’m going to go this one specific week, but I’m going to go where there are cheap flights’ and see what pops up over the next week or two … that is going to be your ticket to getting a great deal.”

To watch for deals, consider setting up price alerts to “ensure you’re the first to know as prices drop with any additional discounts or added supply,” Crossey said. More companies than Skyscanner offer the service, such as Google Flights, Kayak, Hopper and Keyes’s Scott’s Cheap Flights.

I have had price alerts set for flights to Costa Rica during a certain time frame and watched them rise and fall — both slightly and dramatically. If they don’t come down, I’ll be flexible with my plans and pick a different destination.

I also have price alerts set for Puerto Rico, which ranked as one of Hopper’s cheapest international spring break options. Other destinations on that list include Bogotá, Colombia; cities in Mexico like Guadalajara, Cancún, Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta and Mérida; and Canadian cities Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

Crossey recommended expanding your search to different dates and — if possible — alternative airports for departure and arrival. Because flight prices are based on supply and demand (among a million other factors), prices will vary depending on what dates and airports become most popular.

“Consider traveling a day before or a day after your original departure dates,” Crossey said. “Flying on less popular days of the week is always cheaper.”

Additionally, Crossey said, you may also have luck cutting costs by mixing airlines. Consider one-way fares that have you fly with one carrier on departure and another on your return. Flight-booking sites and apps such as Skyscanner offer multi-flight searches that can make that easier.