How to Get Home for the Holidays at a Fraction of the Cost

U.S. News & World Report

How to Get Home for the Holidays at a Fraction of the Cost

When it comes to holiday travel, scenes from Steve Martin's miserable journey in the movie, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" undoubtedly come to mind. But travel need not be so chaotic, as there are many ways to get where you're going without ever having to step foot inside an airport, or even your own car. Here are some alternative modes of transportation, from buses to trains to rental cars, that may surprise you with their modern conveniences and significant cost savings.

Long-distance bus transportation is probably not the first choice for a majority of domestic travelers due to the sheer amount of time it can take to get to a destination. But a 2013 study from DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development found that city-to-city bus travel is actually growing faster than any other form of intercity transportation. What's driving this trend? To start, bus travel is not what it used to be. Both Greyhound and Megabus, which travel to more than 120 U.S. cities, offer modern conveniences like free Wi-Fi and power outlets at every seat.

Greyhound has completely refurbished its buses, many of which are brand new. All Greyhound buses now have leather seats and offer more legroom than you'll find in an airplane's coach class. Meanwhile, Megabus's fleet — all double-deckers — offers panoramic views in its upper deck seating, reclining seats and reserved seating options.

Millennials are jumping on the bus travel bandwagon, too. According to Andy Kaplinsky, Greyhound's chief financial officer, this younger generation of travelers appreciate the reduced environmental impact, the ability to work while commuting and the cost savings: Compared to air travel, consumers save an average of $169 per one-way trip, according to Megabus.

Train travel can also be an efficient way to get to your destination without the hassle of holiday traffic. "In the winter season, you're much better off in a nice warm Amtrak train, waving at people on the highways as you go by them," said Marc Magliari, spokesman for Amtrak.

Like Megabus, Amtrak added several upgrades to its trains, such as free Wi-Fi on every short-distance service and at many train stations as well. On long-distance legs, coach seating is equipped with leg and arm rests, and the seats have the ability to deeply recline if you want to snooze. Magliari noted that no ground mode of transportation, besides a limo, has more legroom than Amtrak.

Since the company upgraded to electronic ticketing, the boarding process has improved too. Now, passengers can print boarding passes at home rather than stand in lines at the ticket office.

Compared to driving, you're likely to get where you're going a lot faster by train. In parts of the country, Amtrak can travel at speeds of up to 110 miles per hour, much faster than car speed limits. Though trains do have to make regular stops, Magliari said that the train will usually beat a car, especially considering holiday traffic.

According to Christy Cavallini, spokeswoman for Enterprise Rent-a-Car, renting a car is an increasingly common way to travel over the holidays. "We continue to see year-over-year increase in reservations for the Christmas holiday," Cavallini said. "We have more than a million vehicles in our fleet, many of which will be rented over the holidays."

Renting a car offers a few key benefits. For one, it lessens the wear and tear and increased mileage on your own vehicle. If you own a small car, renting a larger vehicle allows you to more easily transport visiting family members. And if you're looking to try a new make or model before purchasing, renting the car for your holiday travels may provide a more comprehensive impression than a brief test ride at the dealership. 

Cavallini does recommend reserving your rental car as soon as possible for the holidays to get the best pricing and availability. She also suggested trying one of the company's neighborhood rental branches, many of which offer a $9.99 weekend special, allowing customers to rent an economy or compact car Friday through Monday for $9.99 per day with 100 free miles per day.

If you've already booked your plane ticket home for the holidays, U.S. News has got you covered there, too, with these hassle-free holiday air travel tips.

About the author: Lyn Mettler is an Indianapolis-based freelance travel writer who blogs at Go To Travel Gal. You can follow her on Twitter @GoToTravelGal or on Pinterest.

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