10 Hacks for Headache-Free Travel This Holiday Season

Pros share their top tips for saving money, avoiding crowds and staying sane during the holiday frenzy.

By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterOct. 3, 2016
By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterOct. 3, 2016, at 11:44 a.m.
U.S. News & World Report

10 Hacks for Headache-Free Travel This Holiday Season

Happy family sitting on floor, holding map and planning holiday vacation with Christmas tree in background.

Planning ahead can help you get the best rates.(Getty Images)

It's no secret that traveling around the holidays – when prices, frustrations and crowds soar – can trigger stress-inducing scenarios. Let's face it: At this time of year, navigating weather-related flight disruptions, determining how to get presents from Point A to Point B and staying calm when stalled in a jam-packed terminal are par for the course. But there are ways to minimize hassles during the hectic travel period. Here are 10 time-tested tricks from industry pros to elevate your holiday travel experience, avoid overpaying and, most importantly, prevent unnecessary aggravation this season.

Book Early

If your top priority is getting the best rates, don't procrastinate. Ideally, five to eight weeks prior to your desired departure date is the best time to book, says Clara Sedlak, senior editor at travel site Jetsetter.com. "A lot of times, airfare sticker shock keeps people from buying holiday fares early enough," explains Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com. Flights during the peak travel period, including around Thanksgiving and the December holidays can be 10, 20 or 30 percent higher than other times of year, he adds.

When You See a Good Deal, Don't Dawdle

Flight and hotel prices only increase as the holidays approach, so if you see a great deal, grab it. "When you see a fare that looks good, don’t assume you can take a week or a couple of days or even a few hours to mull things over," Klee says, pointing out that domestic carriers typically allow you to cancel your purchase within a 24-hour booking window. The same money-saving strategy applies to booking accommodations. If you see a bargain, get it, but keep your eyes peeled for an alternative option to rebook your stay at a better price if it becomes available, Sedlak says. George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, also points to Tingo, the money-back hotel site, as a great tool. If a hotel surreptitiously lowers a rate, Tingo will refund the difference in price to your credit card.

Avoid Popular Travel Days

If you can, skip traveling the day before Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve. Flying on the day of the holiday (i.e. Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day) can be especially kind to your wallet. It's also a wise idea to opt out of flying on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Dec. 26 or Jan. 2 if you want to slash costs, Klee says.

Use the Right Tools

It sounds like a no-brainer, but make sure to download the right apps before booking your holiday travel and heading to the airport. Sedlak recommends following preferred airlines' Twitter handles to score the best deals and utilizing airfare alert tools to stay attuned to the best deals. She also suggests downloading your airline's app before you leave home to ensure you pre-empt any delays. Tools such as Free WiFi Finder or LoungeBuddy are particularly useful if you're stranded with a long layover, Sedlak adds. Another must-have is the TSA app, Sedlak says, highlighting that the tool showcases expected wait times and can help you choose the quickest line.

Time When You Fly and Where You Sit

This insider trick can help promote stress-free flying. "Book the earliest departure you can. Sure, you'll have to wake up early, but the first flights out are the least likely to be delayed," says Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo. Beyond choosing when to fly, selecting your seat is also a critical step. For a desirable seat, utilize the savvy SeatGuru tool to pinpoint the seats with the most legroom and in-flight entertainment. After all, it's not just about scoring a bargain-bin seat, Hobica says. It's important to factor middle seats and connection times into the decision-making process. Like on Broadway, you can get a great deal for a Standing Room Only ticket or snag a front-row seat, he explains.

Consider All Options

Don't overlook alternative airports. You can often find a bargain by traveling through smaller hubs, along with a more relaxing pre-flight experience. You may be able to get a better rate by flying through Trenton-Mercer Airport, rather than Newark Liberty International Airport, for example, Hobica says. It's also important to evaluate all routes to secure the cheapest rate. "Being willing to travel on a different airline for the outbound and return can also sometimes offer cost savings," Saglie says.

Upgrade Your Trip

Even if you're not a frequent flier with thousands of miles, it's a smart idea to spring for an upgrade at this time of year. "Business travel is slow over the holidays, so those seats usually taken by business travelers tend to be empty. Look for business class seats especially on international flights," Saglie says. Another way to get an upgrade is by utilizing bidding sites that allow you to copay with miles to vault into a higher cabin category, Hobica says.

Go to Wallet-Friendly Destinations

If you're not heading home for the holidays, plan an international trip. "For any other country, [Thanksgiving is] just a normal Thursday, and in many cases it's low season, too," Saglie says. A great place to set your sights on is London, Sedlak says. Thanks to a great exchange rate in light of Brexit, November is a particularly inexpensive month to travel to England, she says, pointing out that SkyScanner.com currently lists round-trip flights in November for less than $500.

Pack Smart

Traveling over the holidays is stressful enough without worrying about dreaded overweight baggage fees. Different airlines now charge $50 to $75 per overweight bag, Sedlak cautions, noting it's best to tread lightly. Compare the costs of transporting an extra bag of presents versus utilizing FedEx ground, she says, and "keep in mind that when you wrap presents, TSA agents are free to open them." Saglie recommends consolidating space and traveling light. "Consider buying gifts online and having your parcels shipped to your destination. Then, all you have to do is wrap the presents when you get there," he says.

Insure Your Trip

Sedlak recommends either tacking on insurance coverage when booking your flights or using a trusted independent operator available through InsureMyTrip.com or Squaremouth.com. Another option if your budget allows is working with a reputable advisor who can help you if you encounter a weather-related incident and need to rebook your flight quickly. "When something goes wrong, you have an advocate," she explains. Hobica also recommends booking your flights and hotels with credit cards that offer you some insurance, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred or United MileagePlus Explorer card for built-in coverage.

Liz Weiss, Staff Writer

Liz Weiss is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report. With more than six years of ...  Read more

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