Working out the logistics of holiday travel probably ranks somewhere between going to the dentist and filing taxes. Between the crowds (on the roads, in the air, and everywhere else) and the increased prices, holiday travel can bring out the Grinch in all of us. Depending on your travel plans, flexibility, and adventurousness, there’s a wide variety of ways to cut the cost of travel from Thanksgiving to New Year's. Budget-travel bloggers, industry executives, and travel editors and journalists share the inside scoop on happy holiday travels.
Cost-conscious travelers turn to Skyscanner, a global metasearch engine, to compare prices on everything from flights to hotels to car rentals. Budget travel blogger Jema Patterson, founder of Half the Clothes, says it's her go-to website when researching the cheapest way to get from one place to another. She takes advantage of the "everywhere" function on the search platform. First she’ll check the prices to her main destination, such as heading to Rome from Raleigh, North Carolina. Then she’ll search departures from the same airport and choose the destination "everywhere" on Skyscanner to see if there are significantly cheaper flights to other countries, such as Portugal. “From there, it's a cheap budget airline hop to the Roman empire," Patterson explains.
It's often cheaper to fly on certain days, depending on the destination. For instance, because weekend getaways generally start on Friday, Saturday tickets are often cheaper. In addition, many vacationers come home on Sunday, and business travelers often need or prefer to travel on Monday. Lower demand midweek makes it cheaper to fly on Tuesday and Wednesday. "However, these patterns aren't universal," Patterson says. "Use a flight search engine to study patterns for your specific destination before you ask for time off at work." Sites such as Google Flights have calendar views and price graphs showing which days are cheapest.
Groupon and LivingSocial have dedicated travel sections that include thousands getaways that can enhance your holiday without putting a big dent in your pocketbook. These sites offer discounts on everything from airfare, to family resorts, bike rentals, hotels, tours, and water parks, says Luvleen Sidhu, co-founder and chief strategy officer of BankMobile, a free banking app.
Yes, it probably sounds counterintuitive (not to mention terribly nerve-wracking), but budget travel blogger Jema Patterson insists this approach can work. "Booking in advance to save money only stands true for people who are really organized. The most inexpensive slice of flight inventory for Thanksgiving is gone months in advance," she says. "But a few days before the holiday, hotels and airlines will offer clearance prices."
When searching for deals, consult not only the major search engines but also sites that cater to specific travel needs. "Download a few different travel apps or check travel sites and social media pages," says BankMobile's Sidhu. "Many of the apps and websites give you ideas for potential destinations and help you compare pricing." For instance, consumers who prefer independent boutique hotels can try Stayful. Those looking for a last-minute hotel room may want to check out the free HotelTonight app.
Many people travel to spend the holiday season with loved ones, but those not tied to a specific locale can look to off-season destinations to find a better deal, Sidhu says. "The upside is that you'll get to avoid crowds and can settle in for some well-deserved relaxation." Sidhu's suggestions for the winter holidays include Las Vegas, San Diego, and Hawaii -- all of which are slow in November and before Christmas.
Since 2013, travel blogger Laura Cody has been traveling around the world at minimal expense, often living rent free, thanks in large part to housesitting. Websites that facilitate such free accommodations include Mind My House and Trusted Housesitters. These sites often have membership fees, but they're typically minimal -- $20 to $50. And the tradeoff is access to houses around the world, from Germany to Malaysia to Italy, as well as the U.S. If you're lucky, there may even be a home available near your family during the holidays.
Rather than pay for a train, bus, or plane ticket to get home for the holidays, consider signing up to relocate a recreational vehicle, which can cost as little as $1 a day. Imoova offers RV relocation in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, with $100 for gas to boot. Typically it's a one-way ride, but if you can drive a vehicle home, as well, it can dramatically cut transportation costs. Some RVs fit as many as five or six people, which translates into savings on tickets for the entire family.
An analysis of booking data from the 2016 holiday season by the travel search site Hipmunk found that travelers saved up to 27 percent if they purchased Thanksgiving airfare by Sept. 25, and up to 38 percent on Christmas airfare. Those who booked by Oct. 30 still saved up to 24 percent on Thanksgiving flights, and up to 31 percent on Christmas flights. “￼So long as you book before Halloween, you’ll usually avoid the highest prices,” said Adam Goldstein, Hipmunk co-founder and CEO. The analysis also found 64 percent of all Thanksgiving flights and 84 percent of all Christmas flights were not booked until the start of October.
Twitter isn't only for following friends, favorite celebrities, and politicians. It's one of the best ways to learn about limited-time airfare deals, Reddi says. Some of the Twitter accounts that regularly tweet airfare deals include @secretflying, @theflightdeal, and @airfarewatchdog.
Mark Murphy, founder of the industry news site TravelPulse, says hotels often advertise last-minute deals via email lists and Twitter and Facebook accounts. Take a few minutes and sign up to follow hotels in the places where you have holiday travel planned.
Another bit of advice from Murphy: Ticket prices for flights before 8 a.m. and after 8 p.m. are up to 70 percent cheaper. As an added bonus, Murphy says, there's typically no one in the middle seat on these off-hours flights.
Metasearch sites such as Kayak and Hipmunk allow searches for one-way tickets and booking through different airlines for departure and return trips. Often this is the best way to find the cheapest overall price, TravelPulse's Murphy says. "It's a bit more of a hassle but easier on the wallet in the end."
This isn't for the faint of heart, given the many weather delays and flight cancellations that often accompany holiday travel. But if you can stomach the risk, the cheapest day to travel is always the actual holiday, Murphy says. "It's up to 80 percent less than days before or days after."
Many companies negotiate agreements with hotel chains to provide discounted room rates for employees. Find out if your company has done this and whether you can access those rates, advises Suzanne Wolko, a former global travel adviser for investment firms and now a travel agent and blogger at PhilaTravelGirl.
We're not talking new locations of big, established chain hotels such as Marriott or Hilton, but rather smaller, lesser-known offerings. In New York City, for example, some of the newer names in the market include CitizenM and Pod Hotels, both from overseas. Often these properties offer more value for the price, Wolko says.
Searching flights to and from less traveled airports -- even small ones -- can often result in savings, says Clem Bason, founder and CEO of the hotel deal site GoSeek (and former president of Hotwire). In particular, he says, pay attention to alternate airports dominated by Southwest Airlines, where savings can be significant.
Star ratings often reflect amenities, not necessarily overall experience. By opting for a 2- or 3-star hotel with excellent customer reviews (instead of a 4-star property), consumers can find a hidden gem at a great value, says Justine McDonald, a travel expert at Expedia. When searching for accommodations, filter properties by price and guest rating rather than star rating to make it easier to find a highly rated hotel that fits the budget.
Savvy shoppers know they can easily save 15 percent to 20 percent on advertised hotel prices, Bason says. How? Check for coupons on sites such as Travelocity or Orbitz, ask about special rates for AAA or AARP members, and check rates on hotel websites. These days, hotels often feature rates that are lower than those found through online travel agencies, so it may pay to book direct.
By purchasing components such as a flight, hotel, and car together, consumers can significantly trim the total cost of a trip, says Justine McDonald of CheapTickets. "It's worth noting that, even if you are only staying in a hotel for a portion of your trip, you can still book components together," she says.
For those with a membership, car rental through Costco can be substantially cheaper. "Costco has the lowest prices out there on brand name car rental agencies like Alamo, Avis, and Budget," GoSeek's Bason says, adding that reservations often include a second driver for free and are easily changed or canceled.
The vacation rental marketplace Tansler has been described as Priceline meets Airbnb; it allows renters to name their own price. They browse available properties, select several they'd be happy with, and submit a binding offer for the whole stay. The first host to accept the rental offer within 24 hours wins the booking. The site lists homes all over the U.S. and internationally, and typically users walk away with discounts of up 60 percent off stated prices.
For those traveling during the holidays purely for pleasure, with no specific family events to attend, group tours offer significant cost savings, says Greg Geronemus, co-CEO of SmarTours. "You can save anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars traveling with a group," he says. "Tour operators have significant purchasing power and, quite simply, by going with a group, you spread lots of costs across a group of people."
If all else fails, wait until the holidays have passed. This may sound like heresy to those who need to get home to be with family, but consumers can save substantially and avoid holiday-travel hassles by simply delaying until January, Geronemus says. "It may not be ideal, and it's a bit disappointing delaying a holiday visit, but for many, it may make a whole lot more sense."