With the holiday travel season upon us – a time of year when crowds and costs soar – clinching a reasonably priced hotel or flight can seem next to impossible. But it doesn't have to be: With a little creativity and some smart strategies from travel experts, we came up with nine clever ways to slash costs over the holidays. Here are some tricks for scoring the best savings during the holiday rush.
"It's going to be a record-breaking season of holiday travel," says Tom Spagnola, senior vice president, supplier relations at CheapOair. To snap up the lowest rates, he advises locking in your plans as soon as you can. And if you've signed up for fare alerts for your desired route and you see a price drop, grab it, says Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo. "They're usually very short-lived and one- or two-day sales," he explains, adding that availability will be much more limited for Thanksgiving Day travel come October.
Booking your flights early will yield high savings for winter trips, too, explains George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. "You'll get the most value for your buck," he adds, noting that airfare prices will continue to climb after Dec. 14 for holiday travel.
Use Competition to Your Advantage
A simple, but strategic way to secure airfare deals is flying to or from destinations where there's high competition among airlines."There are some routes that have many airlines vying for your business," Hobica explains, pointing to popular routes from primary airline hubs in major cities like Dallas and New York City. Spagnola agrees, noting that you'll find very competitive pricing and a greater opportunity for snagging a deal on routes where multiple airlines are trying to attract the same customer.
Consider Alternative Airports
"I've found some substantial savings and convenience by looking at alternative airports," Saglie says. In terms of how far away you should look, Spagnola recommends checking out hubs "within a 25- to 50-mile radius" and looking at flights on off-peak days. If you have some leeway in your schedule, look for flights departing on Mondays and Tuesdays, he suggests.
Apart from searching for flights with alternative hubs, you should also "consider the super discount airlines, like Spirit and Frontier," Hobica advises. But you have to do your homework, he explains, noting that while you can score reduced fares with low-cost carriers, there are many ancillary fees to watch out for, such as checked baggage fees.
Choose When You Book Wisely
When it comes to shopping around for the best flight prices, experts recommend checking rates often and not pigeonholing off-peak days or midweek travel as the absolute best times for booking. "I don't think there's a magic time to book," Hobica says. "People should check frequently because fares do go up and down," he says, noting that for winter trips, Dec. 23 to 25 are great days to travel. And for Thanksgiving trips, the morning of turkey day and the Saturday or Wednesday after the holiday are the cheapest days to fly, he says.
For hotels, Hobica advises utilizing sites like Tingo.com, a booking site that will refund you the difference in cost if the rate goes down after you book through its platform.
To get a sense of current offers, Saglie also recommends relying on aggregator sites. "They do a really nice job of giving you a real-time snapshot of airfare across all the airlines," he explains, suggesting travelers rely on these tools for "an immediate look at what's available now."
Steer Away From the Crowds
If you're looking for a great deal this winter, avoid the crowds, Saglie advises. "Business city destinations offer leisure travel bargains," he says, noting that high-end hotels will reduce rates by 40 to 50 percent or more in business-friendly cities like New York City. Canada is another great option for travelers, thanks to lower demand during the holiday travel season and the strength of the U.S. dollar.
And if you're not interested in planning an international trip, you can get a great deal on premium seats, Hobica explains. "Business class fares tend to be 50 percent cheaper over the holidays," he says.
Consider Cashing in Those Rewards Points
The holidays are a smart time to redeem your miles and points, experts say. Why? "Things like complimentary upgrades, personalized amenities and access to rates and packages that are exclusive to loyalty members can be a good value proposition," Saglie says. "If you find prices to be relatively the same, the perks that come with loyalty are tough to ignore," he explains, pointing to waived checked baggage fees and expedited security as enticing perks that can require extra fees for non-loyalty members.
In addition to benefitting from extra privileges that make for a more enjoyable travel experience, many frequent flier programs no longer impose blackout dates that prevent members from booking reward flights during peak travel times, so you can use your points at any time, Spagnola says. JetBlue TrueBlue and Southwest Rapid Rewards, for example, do not apply blackout dates for award travel on their flights, as long as there is availability, enabling fliers to use their points at any time. "It benefits the consumer in different ways," he adds, emphasizing that in addition to helping you cut back holiday travel costs, being loyal can help you "save you money when you're trying to book your flight to Hawaii next summer."
Hit the Road
"This is a year where your holiday travel might best be done by car," Saglie says, adding that "gas price predictions continue to stay lower than we've seen in years." In fact, a September AAA Travel report reveals gas prices have fallen year over year, allowing road trippers to save an average of $1.06 per gallon. While the instinct is to start searching for competitive flight rates, the truth is luggage and parking at the airport can add up, making driving a great alternative, Saglie explains.
Eliminate unnecessary extra costs by "loading up on things like snacks and entertainment," Saglie advises. He recommends checking out which items are available at the closest drug stores and stocking up on few essentials. For families, he suggests "bringing along comfort items from home" to avoid shelling out extra money for additional items in transit or at a hotel.
Stay Engaged on Social Media
Social media users offer a captive and targeted audience for the airline and hospitality industry, Saglie explains. "It's an audience that's said, 'I'm waiting for news, information and deals,'" he says. As a result, travelers will often see unpublished fare sales on social media platforms, he says.
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