buyer's market

It’s Not Your Imagination — This Holiday Season Is Unusually Rushed

Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

I’m throwing a Christmas party on December 14, and as a result, I can’t go to the four other Christmas parties I was invited to on December 14. I announce this as a demonstration not of my popularity but of this year’s unusually cramped holiday calendar. Everyone wants to have a party on the 14th because it’s the only good holiday-party Saturday on this year’s calendar.

This Christmas is coming just 27 days after Thanksgiving, which is the shortest gap possible. (Last year, Christmas was 33 days after Thanksgiving.) The condensed holiday season doesn’t just make it hard to schedule a party. It has implications for retailers and shoppers, who have to get their transactions in with fewer shopping days between the two holidays. And it has implications for airlines and their customers; when Thanksgiving is this late, it means Christmas and New Year’s fall on Wednesdays, making it less obvious when one should leave for or return from holiday travel.

“Often, December 23 is the peak outbound day,” says Gary Leff, who writes the View From the Wing blog on travel and rewards programs. “That won’t be the case this year.”

Indeed, it won’t. According to Booking Holdings, which owns the Kayak flight-search engine, this year’s busiest outbound holiday air travel day is set to be Saturday, December 21; the second-busiest will be Friday, the 20th. (This is why people don’t want to have their holiday parties on the 21st; who knows who will be in town?) The busiest date for return flights is set to be Saturday, January 4, also according to Kayak data.

The Wednesday holidays actually make life a little easier for airlines and air travelers because they lead to more spread-out demand: Instead of everyone rushing home on Friday when Christmas Eve is on Saturday, departures and returns are smoothed across several days, which may make the airport a little less hellish and peak-day airfares less shockingly high.

The flip side of that smoothing is it’s less obvious when to travel if you want to get a great deal — most days will have a good number of people who think that’s the best day to travel. But if you’re willing to travel on a holiday, you may avoid some crowds and save some money.

United Airlines says it expects its least busy outbound holiday travel days, with the lowest fares, to be Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with New Year’s Eve being the least busy day to return. So you might consider flying on December 31 if that won’t result in you missing New Year festivities, or if you want an excuse to miss them. Brian Kelly, founder of the Points Guy, also recommends using reward miles to book holiday travel — when cash fares spike, paying with miles may be especially cost-effective. But if you’re looking to fly first or business class, he says you may find surprisingly reasonable prices, because while the holidays lead to heavy demand for economy travel, few business travelers are flying.

As for shopping?

“We know that there’s some urgency on the part both of consumers and of retailers because we’ve got fewer days between Thanksgiving and the Christmas holiday than we have for many years,” said National Retail Federation spokesman Bill Thorne on a call with reporters Tuesday.

Every November and December, NRF surveys consumers, and this year the group found 86 percent of consumers said they had begun their holiday shopping by the end of Thanksgiving weekend, up from 77 percent last year. The organization also says those who have been shopping are closer to being done; Thanksgiving shoppers said they were 52 percent done with holiday shopping after the weekend, on average, up from 44 percent last year. Major retailers like Walmart and Target nudged consumers to shop earlier by launching their November sales promotions earlier than usual, even as Thanksgiving fell late.

What’s the outlook for shoppers who haven’t even started? Katherine Cullen, who works on NRF’s research team, says shoppers tend to shift away from online shopping toward in-store as we approach the end of the holiday season, so as to avoid expedited shipping fees or the risk of presents arriving after Christmas. So, if you wait until the last minute, you may face the daunting prospect of going to the mall on the busiest shopping day of the year, which usually isn’t Black Friday but Super Saturday, the Saturday before Christmas. (Again, that’s December 21, also the busiest outbound air travel day; another reason why all the parties are on the 14th.)

But online shopping has become a more viable option for late shoppers than it used to be. The last time the holiday season was this short was 2013, and the retail landscape has changed a lot since then, particularly the rise of Amazon Prime and Amazon’s shift toward free one-day shipping with Prime. Those online shopping improvements mean shoppers who let the calendar catch up with them will face less penalty for procrastinating, if they are willing to trust the shipping companies. Christmas on Wednesday also means it’s easier to order at the last minute and still have a couple of business days left for package delivery before the holiday.

Last year, the pace of holiday shopping was leisurely for a few reasons. In addition to the extra weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the government shutdown and a stock-market swoon were putting a damper on consumer sentiment just when shopping was at its peak. This year, consumers are more eager to shop and have less time to do it. Plan for the mall to be a mess.

The Holiday Season Is Extra Rushed — Here’s Why