Whether driving to visit family or flying to a tropical island to escape winter weather, many Americans will be traveling over the holidays. A recent survey from Orbitz found that 71 percent of those polled plan to take at least one trip between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and they anticipate shelling out $2,195 in holiday travel expenses.
Although airfares and room rates can be inflated during that peak travel season, it’s possible to trim travel costs over the holidays without channeling your inner Scrooge. Here are 10 holiday travel mistakes to avoid like month-old fruitcake:
1. Booking Too Late
Booking travel can be a delicate balancing act between holding out for deals and paying a premium for the single seat left on the plane or the last room at the inn. But travelers hoping to land last-minute deals on airfares for the holidays are likely to get stuck with long layovers, multiple stops and inconvenient flight times, said Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com.
“The longer a customer waits to purchase tickets, not only is he or she less likely to get a good price, but the inventory of itineraries available becomes more and more limited,” he said. “This creates a scenario in which you’re not only going to pay more for your ticket, [but] the flights themselves will have a higher likelihood of being less desirable.”
Based in its 2014 data, the flight search engine FareCompare found that travelers who bought Thanksgiving tickets in September paid 20 to 50 percent less than those who didn’t book until November, reported The New York Times. Based on the numbers from the FareCompare study, procrastination can cost travelers $400 on a Los Angeles to Orlando trip.
2. Booking Too Early
The same isn’t always true for hotels. In fact, it generally pays to book no more than 21 days prior to your stay, reported USA Today. The boutique hotel booking site Stayful, which lets travelers bid on unfilled rooms, works under the principle that hotels prefer lower rates over empty rooms and don’t allow users to book more than 30 days in advance.
“People like to book their travel plans way too far in advance, which sometimes leads to overpaying for something you could’ve gotten a discount on,” said Stayful co-founder and CEO Cheryl Rosner.
The strategy saves Stayful users an average of about 30 percent on room rates, according to company data. For those who are nervous about being left out in the cold, periodically check fares about 40 days before your trip and book if prices seem to be on the upswing.
3. Being Inflexible
“With most vacations, you can schedule them a week earlier or later without making much of a difference, but there’s less flexibility when it comes to the holidays,” said Sarah Schlichter, senior editor at IndependentTraveler.com. “For example, Thanksgiving Day is a very cheap day to fly, but if the whole reason you’re traveling is to get home for dinner at Grandma’s that evening — flying on the day probably won’t work for you.”
“Because the holidays themselves are on fixed dates and most family celebrations are scheduled around those, most of us have less flexibility than we’d like,” she added.
If traveling on Thanksgiving Day seems too extreme, even small scheduling concessions can cut costs, said Klee. “You can shave dollars off your holiday travel here and there by being willing to take connecting flights, having some flexibility with your dates of travel, flying from alternate airports, [and] mixing and matching airlines on your outbound and return flights,” he said. “Even being open to a range of flight times can help. Basically, the more restrictions you have with your itinerary, the less likely you are to snag a great deal.”
4. Wasting Time Chasing the Impossible Dream Deal
Everyone’s seen those deals for fares under $50 or offers that advertise a one-way flight to anywhere in the country for under $100. Don’t be fooled by these fares, which can be impossible to find — if they exist at all, that is.
“Because you have to search for each date and destination you might be interested in, people shop around for hours looking for the perfect flight, wait too long to book, then end up paying through the nose,” said Gillian Morris, founder and CEO of Hitlist, which offers a vacation planning and travel savings app of the same name. “This is because many airfare deal sites make their money on driving traffic, regardless of whether the people they deliver to the airline actually book. Most deal sites are actually incentivized to make you click, not make you buy, so they’ll advertise fares that are hard — if not impossible — to find to lure you in.”
Average airfare prices for the Thanksgiving holiday travel period rise about $5 a day through the end of October, according to FareCompare. So, the more time you waste booking your trip, the more it will cost you in the end.
5. One-Stop Shopping
Vacation-planning advice from IndependentTraveler.com includes using a site like Kayak.com or TripAdvisor Flights to compare prices from several airlines. While many people will find fares in the same ballpark, these sites can help you avoid inflated fares coming out of left field.
If you discover a deal, Klee advised checking the fine print on the booking site. Many offer a full refund if you cancel within 24 hours. “If you find something that meets your requirements, grab it now,” he said. “Don’t assume it will still be there later.”
He added, “In general, you can cancel flights booked online within 24 hours for a full refund, so it’s more sensible to lock it in.” And, you can always use that 24-hour grace period to shop around.
6. Accidental Overspending
The holidays offer more free time and less structure for most travelers. That break in the routine can break the bank if vacationers lose track of discretionary spending, said Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist, professor and co-author of “Financial Therapy: Theory, Research & Practice.”
“Anytime we are out of our normal environment, away for our homes [and] work with more free time than usual, we are vulnerable to overspending,” said Klontz. “Our normal schedule typically does not allow as much time for shopping, going out to eat, etc. Our usual inhibitions are often relaxed, and we can overspend unconsciously.”
Before going out of town during the holidays, create a travel budget. Otherwise, you might find yourself deep in debt once you return home.
7. Vacationing on Credit
When possible, use cash instead of credit while on vacation. “It is common to vacation on credit,” said Klontz. “Having not saved enough money to pay cash for the entire vacation, many of us float the expenses on credit cards. While we might have the goal of paying the vacation off right away, often we are surprised by how much we spend and may carry a balance for months afterwards.”
For instance, if you charge the $2,195 on a credit card with a 15.00% APR and pay only the minimum each month, it will take you almost 11 years and more than $1,300 in interest to pay off your original trip, according to calculations from American Consumer Credit Counseling Inc. Save yourself $1,361.54 in interest charges and pay with cash when you can.
If you’re traveling abroad, surprise cell phone costs can add up faster than your holiday weight gain. For example, according to Tech Insider, it could cost AT&T customers as much as $2.50 a minute and $19.97 a megabyte to make a call or browse the internet internationally. At $2.50 a minute, a single 5-minute phone call would add $12.50 to your holiday travel budget.
But many major U.S. carriers, including AT&T and Verizon, now offer international service plans that cut these costs dramatically for an additional fee. There are also a number of apps and programs that allow you to stay connected at no cost.
Consider trying to travel with only a carry-on bag if possible. That way, you can check a bag or box of gifts without being saddled with too many extra bag fees. Some airlines, including American Airlines and Delta, charge passengers $25 for one checked bag.
Overpacking can cost you if you’re driving, too. The money you stand to save varies according to the make and model of your car. To calculate how much you can save by improving your car’s average miles per gallon, you can visit FuelEconomy.gov.
Airfare, car rental and hotel costs are obvious, but Schlichter and other experts say vacationers must consider smaller expenses that include everything from ATM surcharges to airline baggage fees to set an accurate holiday travel budget.
Keep Reading: 51 Tips for Saving Money During the Holidays
“To get a more realistic idea of what your trip will cost, we recommend using our Travel Budget Calculator, which lets you fill in estimates for even things you might not think about, such as airport parking or pet care while you’re away,” said Schlichter. “Seeing the true cost of your next trip before you go will help you figure out how to pay for it, whether through saving in advance or by cutting down in certain areas. That way, you don’t end up putting unexpected charges on your credit card and racking up unnecessary debt that could cost you for years to come.”