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Every November and December millions of Americans make the annual pilgrimage to various locations across the country to visit friends and family for the holidays.
While it’s (usually) wonderful to get to see the people in our lives that matter the most, it can often be a huge financial burden to travel around the country during the busiest travel time of the year.
At Frugal for Less, we understand that not everyone is made out of money, that’s why we’re providing you with some helpful tips and tricks to save you some money and stress before you travel this holiday season.
1. Look At Lodging Other Than Hotels
If you do have to pay for lodging, investigate options other than hotels. Airbnb‘s, condos, and home rentals can offer many benefits, especially if traveling with a family or a large group (and if you play your cards right, you might even be able to get some discounts).
Rental homes usually offer amenities such as kitchens and refrigerators, allowing you to purchase food and drinks at grocery stores for a fraction of the cost that you would spend eating and drinking out every night.
A kitchen allows you to make some meals at home, pack lunches prior to going out for the day, and have a glass of wine waiting for you when you get back from a long day with the family.
In addition, you can save money on rental homes by looking outside of the main tourist areas. Booking lodging just a few blocks from high traffic tourist zones not only brings the cost down significantly, but gives you some peace and quite, and a much more local feel for the area you’re staying.
Being a few blocks from the main sites also gives you a good reason to get out and do some walking to burn off some of those calories from holiday meals.
2. Book Your Trip Early
Whether it’s a plane, train, or automobile, no matter how you’re planning on getting to your destination you’re going to find the best deals the earlier you book.
If it’s the end of October or beginning of November and you’re reading this article in anticipation of traveling for Thanksgiving or Christmas, stop reading right now and go to your budget website of choice and get you and your family tickets now (Actually, wait until you get to the end of the article, there’s some good tips in here!).
According to Skyscanner, booking your Christmas flight is 3% cheaper if you purchase it before 11/19. If you wait until the last minute, you could be paying almost 10% more than average for that trip to see Grandma and Grandpa.
If you’re traveling with a family, there’s a good chance that the transportation costs are going to be one of the largest line items for the budget, so saving 10% a ticket can mean quite a bit of extra spending money for those holiday presents.
Even if you’re traveling with more than one person, make sure you check the price for an individual ticket first. Airlines and trains often have limited numbers of discounted seats, and if there’s only one left and you’re searching for multiple passengers, you’ll never find the deals.
Book whatever discount tickets you can first, and if you still have to purchase extras at the full price, at least you managed to get some level of savings.
3. Travel Off Peak
According to CheapAir, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is one of the busiest and most expensive travel days of the year. If you can’t get your tickets early, or if you want to try and save even more, make your travel plans during off peak days.
This year, the Monday before Thanksgiving is shaping up to be the cheapest travel day of that week. Traveling on Thanksgiving day, or the Friday after will also offer some discount for a return ticket.
Christmas this year falls on a Tuesday. If you’re planning on leaving for your trip on Friday or Saturday before the holiday, you’re going to be paying some of the highest fares of the year.
Same if you’re planning on returning the 26th. If you can schedule your travel days for Christmas Eve and return on Friday the 28th, you’ll be looking at discounted rates in both directions. If you can schedule to travel on Christmas day, you can save even more.
Traveling on off peak days can also give you an opportunity to get home early and recharge those batteries after a long few days with the relatives. A little staycation will give you a chance to reset before heading back to the office on Monday.
If you do have to travel on peak days, aim for off peak hours. Early morning flights or red eyes are often cheaper than midday flights, even during the holiday season. In additional to the cheaper fairs, traveling during these off peak hours usually means less crowded planes and airports, and shorter security lines.
4. Try Different Airports And Train Stations
Many cities are serviced by multiple airports and train stations. Make sure to check the prices for different locations to find the best deals.
For example, Google Flights shows a one way ticket from San Diego to New York the day before Thanksgiving will cost $318 to fly into JFK, while the same the flight into Newark costs $246 (and is also 16 minutes faster).
If you’re going to try a different airport, make sure you weigh the various pros and cons each location will pose in getting to your final destination. Is one airport closer? Is public transit or traffic going to be a problem? If all other things are equal, take advantage of the cheaper stop.
5. Alternative Modes Of Transportation
The holidays are synonymous with airline travel, but sometimes other modes of transportation might make for a cheaper and easier trip.
If your destination is less than 400 miles away, it might more sense to drive than to pack up the family, pay for transportation to the airport, arrive two hours early and deal with security, then have to pay for transportation from the airport to your destination.
A road trip can often save hundreds of dollars compared to flying, and depending on the distance, might not take that much longer than flying, especially if you figure in the possibility of weather delays or cancellations that can occur in the winter in some parts of the country.
If you want to calculate whether flying or driving is the better option, try this handy fly or drive calculator.
Train travel is often overlooked, but it’s actually a very comfortable and relaxing form of transportation. Trains offer scenic views, require no driving, and keep you out of traffic.
In addition, you get to skip the hassle of dealing with the TSA line at the airport. If taking Amtrak is an option to get you to your destination it’s definitely worth a look to compare the price and travel time to and see if the train is a viable option.
If you’re going to be traveling by yourself, there’s always the option of car pooling. This is especially useful for college students, or individuals that have friends and family in the area that are also going to your destination.
Like the other methods of travel, it’s best to try and arrange a ride early so that you can secure other transportation in case your ride falls through. College message boards and social media are great places to find out if anyone else in your network is planning on going in your direction for the holidays.
6. Bring Meals And Snacks
Buying food and drinks at the airport or train station can be expensive, especially if you have a large family. Save some money by packing your own snacks and meals before you leave. TSA allows most food items, but make sure you double check the rules regarding drinks and other liquids.
Water bottles have to be empty to get through security, but most airports have fountains to fill them up after you get through.
7. Pack Light
If you do wind up flying, remember that airlines are becoming ever more strict when it comes to bag weights and fees. Check with your carrier before hand to make sure you understand the number of bags that you are allowed, along with any weight restrictions, especially if you are going to be traveling with presents.
Some airlines will charge higher fees for bags that are paid for at the airport, rather than being paid for online prior to the departure day. Also, be aware that TSA may request to open wrapped presents for the sake of security, so it’s good practice not wrap gifts before you travel.
If you haven’t purchased your gifts yet, think about having the items ordered online shipped directly to your destination, which saves you the time and hassle of having to pack and lug things across country.
Most companies offer gift wrapping services for a small fee around the holidays, so it may be cheaper to go this route than to wrap and transport loads of gifts. In the alternative, you can also have the items shipped to your destination and bring a roll of wrapping paper with you in your luggage, and wrap the presents there.
If the gifts are already at your house, check the cost of using a parcel service or the post office to have the items shipped to your destination before you leave.
While this might not sound cheap at first, it might be a better option that paying an airlines baggage fees, and having to deal with the hassle of carrying stacks of gifts and luggage around various airports all day.
The same holds true for those presents that you might be bringing home with you. If you had full bags of luggage before traveling to your destination, they might be busting at the seams once they get filled with presents at your families house.
See if the relatives might be willing to have the goodies sent to you before hand to save you some headache in the long run.
8. While We’re Talking About Fees…
The baggage fees listed above aren’t the only extras that you should be looking out for when you’re booking your travel. Airline fees are getting more ridiculous every year, so make sure when you’re buying those tickets that you do your research into what else your carrier is going to try and charge you for.
Nothing ruins the feeling of getting an awesome deal on that flight then finding out that there’s an extra hidden fee associated with every ticket you bought. This is especially true with discount carriers, who make upwards of 40% of their income from ancillary fees.
Outside of the typical baggage charges, some carries add extra charges for water on the plane, having your boarding pass printed at the airport, booking online, and a host of other things. Remember, even small fees add up, especially if you’re traveling with multiple people in your party.
9. Stay With Family
Along with transportation, lodging is probably going to be among your biggest expenses. One of the easiest and best ways to save during the holiday pilgrimage is to stay with family or friends.
While it’s not always ideal, if you do have family with extra space, it might be worth asking if it’s possible to room with them for the duration of your visit, or even just for a few days. Seeing as the holiday’s are all about family, look at this as an opportunity to spend some extra time with extended family members.
If you are planning on staying with family or friends over the holidays, make sure you set this up with them as soon as possible, and be sure to confirm as the dates get closer.
If there’s multiple family members all going to the same city, you’re probably not the only person(s) who’ll be looking for a place to stay. Making arrangements early will give them adequate time to prepare, as well as making sure that you get your spot reserved!
10. Put Those Points To Good Use
You’ve been earning those points all year, why not use them during the most expensive time of the year for travel? If your points and cards don’t have blackout dates around your holiday travel schedule, this is the perfect time to cash them in.
It’s less complicated during the rest of the year to be flexible with your travel plans, so you’ll have a much easier time scoring that great vacation deal some other time.
The holiday dates are fixed, so if you’ll be traveling around then, check your credit cards, frequent flyer miles, hotel rewards points, and see if you can use them around your travel dates to bring the cost of your trip down.
11. Look For Package Deals
If you do have to get a combination of flight, car, or lodging, check to see if there are any package deals being offered. Discount fair websites will often have package deals that may be cheaper than reserving services individually.
This takes doing some homework. Find the lowest fee for everything that you’ll be needing to make your trip happen, then see if it’s going to be possible to get a package that will be any cheaper.
Make sure that when you compare the package deal to the services you’re planning on reserving that you’re actually comparing similar products. If you price a compact rental car, and the package deal offers a full size rental car, make sure you take this difference into account.
12. Make Sure You’ve Got The Right Card
OK, you’ve read everything. You’ve done your research. You’ve found the most amazing deals ever and you’re going to have the best and most frugal holiday ever! But there is one last thing you need to do before you start booking everything…make sure you are using the right card.
A number of credit cards contain trip protection provisions, and will pay card holders for various travel related mishaps such as flight delays, lost or delayed baggage and flight cancellations.
If your card doesn’t have these features, there’s a still a good chance it’ll provide protection for other purchases, such as rental car insurance coverage, saving you the money and hassle of purchasing rental insurance from your car provider.
While these options are not available on all cards, it’s definitely worth checking with your bank or your credit card, and if none of your cards offer these benefits, here’s some helpful tips that might get you some compensation anyway.
So there you have it, everything you need to know in order to save some money on your holiday travels. With a little a little planning, research, and flexibility, you can cut down on the expense of your holiday trip and have plenty of extra cash in the bank for the things that really matter, your friends and family.
Happy holidays, and safe travels!