How To Travel for Cheap Around Christmas

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A report from travel booking app Hopper said more than half of Americans plan to travel for Thanksgiving or Christmas — or both — this year, with 70% planning to see family and friends. This holiday season seemingly will turn more festive after we’ve lived with the pandemic for two years.

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What could put a damper on the festivities? The cost of airfare, hotels and rental cars. Hopper reported that the combination of Americans itching for holiday travel, high jet fuel costs and airlines putting fewer planes in the sky will result in holiday airfares at the highest prices in five years.

Among people who plan to book holiday flights, two-thirds said finding lower prices on plane tickets is key.

Even though the calendar has turned into October and the holidays are around the corner, you can find ways to save money on travel around Christmas by following the advice shared by experts.

Make Travel Plans Early

If you’re considering visiting family for Thanksgiving or Christmas or taking a warm-weather vacation, the time to book is right now, travel experts said. Booking your travel plans in October gives you the best chance to save money.

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“The biggest mistake we see is people waiting until the last minute to research and book flights, hotels, car rental and planning their overall itinerary and all the logistics,” said Tim Hentschel, CEO and co-founder of HotelPlanner. “For a busy holiday weekend like Thanksgiving, if you plan to travel, now is the time to make all your arrangements, not in November when availability will be limited and everything will cost more.”

Fly on the Holiday

If you’re willing to fly on Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s Eve, the airline likely will gift you with less expensive fares.

“Ultimately the best way to save money on flights around the holidays is to actually fly on Christmas Day,” said Michael Belmont, owner of The Park Prodigy, an online travel agency dedicated to the Disney and Universal theme parks. “Most travelers avoid flying out this day; so, to draw in more ticket purchases, airlines tend to drop their flight prices significantly.

“In fact, in my experience, flying on Christmas Day can cost as low as about 40% of the ticket price of flying on Christmas Eve. Those travelers that are willing to make the sacrifice of flying on Christmas Day will end up saving more money than others.”

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If you don’t have far to travel, this strategy can pay off. You can board a plane in Los Angeles at 6 a.m. and arrive in San Francisco in time for Christmas breakfast.

Be Flexible

If you’re willing to vary your travel from your planned dates, or consider different airports, you can save some cash, Belmont said.

*When it comes to the holiday season, don’t hesitate once you see a deal that you’re comfortable with because last-minute flight deals rarely happen anymore, especially around the busy holiday seasons,” he said. “Be flexible with your travel dates and book an itinerary that will save you money. Even opening up your search by one more day could save you hundreds.

“Don’t forget to price out different airports. Larger city centers will most often have the cheapest flight itineraries, but smaller airports and airlines will sometimes offer deals.”

Use Your Accrued Rewards

Many people have credit cards that build up rewards, but they don’t redeem them. In fact, the results of a survey by LendingTree, released in August, indicated that nearly 70% of credit card users have unused cash-back rewards, points or miles, with 31% of them having rewards worth $100 or more sitting in their accounts.

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Keri Baugh, a family travel blogger at Bon Voyage With Kids, said reviewing your points is an ideal way to save money this holiday season.

“Start by looking for what you can get for free,” she said. “For example, look at your credit card reward points and see if they can be cashed in for gift cards to use toward travel — like restaurant gift cards, Hotels.com gift cards or gas station gift cards. I use Capital One and all of these are available for cashing in my reward points. Capital One also allows you to book travel using your reward points or to erase travel purchases. I often get hundreds of dollars back this way. Additionally, if you have any loyalty programs to a hotel or airline, check to see if you can use those for hotel stays.”

Rent a Car Off Airport

John Newbill, the founder of Maui Rental Cars in Hawaii, recommends skipping the chance to rent a car at the airport and instead booking a car near your hotel.

“One of the best ways that consumers can save money on a rental car during peak holiday travel weeks is to look for pickup locations outside of the airport,” he said. “This will work in almost every major city. … Taking the free shuttle to your hotel and then renting a car from a pick-up location near your hotel can often save hundreds of dollars per week on your car rental.”

Use Your Technology

Wise use of apps will help you to find travel deals at the holidays.

“The Christmas season is the busiest time of the year for travel across the board, from flights to lodging to other methods of transportation, so it can be pretty challenging to hunt down cheap flights,” Belmont said. “However, savvy travelers know that there are a few strategies they can use.

“I first recommend signing up for price alerts from multiple airlines and travel sites using flight aggregators like Google Flights and Kayak. If you sign up for alerts now, you will receive emails whenever flight prices go down for your itinerary. Flight alerts are the best way to jump on discounted rates as soon as they go live.”

Jenna Nye, CEO and co-founder of On the Strip, a Las Vegas-focused travel website, said the filters on travel apps also can help you spot a deal.

“Most travel blogs and travel apps will have a low-budget or cheap accommodation option to help you book lodging within your budget,” she said. “For example, on our website, we have a cheap hotel section where you can find all the budget-friendly hotels in Las Vegas. [On] other websites, you can determine the price range you’re willing to pay for accommodations or even the type of accommodation such as hostels, shared rooms, etc., to help you find a cheaper alternative.”

Don’t Travel With Holiday Gifts

You want to share holiday gifts with friends and family at your destination, of course. Just don’t take them with you. That sweater for Mom, robe for Dad and baseball glove for your brother won’t fit in your carry-on with your stuff, forcing you to pay to check a bag. Why spend $30 to transport your presents?

If you’re taking advantage of a retailer’s free shipping, have your gifts sent straight to where you’ll celebrate the holiday. You can grab some paper and tape there to wrap the goodies. As far as gifts you receive, shipping them back to your house via a ground service might be cheaper than checking a bag. Or, your friends and family always could wrap a photo of your present for you to open and have the store deliver it to your home.

Just a few simple steps will help to cut your holiday travel costs. Who doesn’t want to save money at Christmas?

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About the Author

Jami Farkas holds a communications degree from California State University, Fullerton, and has worked as a reporter or editor at daily newspapers in all four corners of the United States. She brings to GOBankingRates experience as a sports editor, business editor, religion editor, digital editor — and more. With a passion for real estate, she passed the real estate licensing exam in her state and is still weighing whether to take the plunge into selling homes — or just writing about selling homes.
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