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How to Spend Wisely on Holiday Travel

By Rich Beattie

  • PUBLISHED November 16
  • |

With roughly a third of Americans filling up airports, train stations, highways and hotels during the December holidays (more than 107 million Americans last year), the increased demand can lead to eye-popping prices—and stress.

Round-trip flights, for example, were expected to average $165 last holiday season—and that was just for domestic travel on well-serviced routes. A hotel room was another $121–$156 per night. A car rental tacked on $74 per day. Even driving your own car brings challenges, such heavy traffic and the cost of gas.

This all adds up: A travel industry research group reports that U.S. travelers who took their final leisure trip of the year last December spent $1,128 on average. But some smart strategies can help combat these high costs. Here’s what to do. 

Book Right
●    Travel on off days and off-peak times. No one wants to travel on Dec. 25—and that’s exactly the point. Fewer people flying means less expensive fares. The same is true for early morning flights on other days (think 5 a.m.).
●    Check hacker fares. You don’t have to fly both ways on the same airline; in fact, it may be cheaper to fly out on one and back on another. Price out one-way trips and you may see that one leg is more expensive than the other; if so, check the price of that leg on other airlines.
●    Try alternative airports. Research flights to smaller regional airports, which may be cheaper than flying into the major hubs.
●    Book early—but not too early. There is usually a sweet spot for booking flights a few months before the holidays. Set an alert with your preferred booking service to give you a heads up on price drops.
●    Pay with credit card points. Don’t forget about any rewards points you’ve been accumulating with your credit card; they can bring significantly lower—or free—flights.

Fly Right
●    Pack smart. Baggage fees can add significantly to the final cost of your flight, unless the airline allows a checked bag or you have status with that airline. Make sure you have a bag that will fit in the overhead bin; if you need more space, leave items home or wear a couple of layers on the plane.
●    Ship gifts ahead. Take advantage of free shipping offered by some retailers and online services to ship gifts to your travel destination instead of packing them.
●    Bring your own snacks. Once you’re at the airport—and on the plane—you’re at the mercy of vendors and their exorbitant prices. Packing a sandwich and some fruit will save you money.
●    Plan for all costs. When budgeting, don’t forget to take expenses like airport parking into account. If the cost is high, consider taking a cab or public transportation to the airport or asking a friend to drive you.

Stay Right
●    Search rates. Check multiple sites, including online travel agencies and the hotel’s own site. It also never hurts to call the hotel directly; once you get someone talking, they may surprise you with an unpublished rate.
●    Expand your location. Business hotels in downtown areas may not be the sexiest or most convenient option, but they usually won’t be as crowded as other hotels over the holidays.
●    Consider all options. Look into renting a room, or even an entire home if you’re traveling with a group, using an online lodging service.
●    Ask about fees. Before you book, check with the hotel or rental about all charges, like resort fees, cleaning fees or extra charges for parking and Wi-Fi, so you’re not surprised when you arrive.

Drive Right
●    Renting a car? Consider picking up your rental at a location other than the airport; it will most likely be cheaper. (Just be sure the cab fare there won’t offset your savings.) Bonus: You can usually return the car to the airport at no additional charge.
●    Consider a car share. If you’ll be using the car only sporadically for short distances, a car share could save you money over a traditional rental.
●    Driving yourself? Holiday traffic can mean major delays. Travel during off-peak times if possible.

Rich Beattie is a former executive digital editor of Travel + Leisure, and has written for outlets such as The New York Times, Popular Science, New York Magazine and Ski.

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