Better Ways to Book Holiday Travel
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24 Ways to Take the Hassle Out of Booking Holiday Travel

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Better Ways to Book Holiday Travel
Manuel Faba Ortega/istockphoto

Pay Less, Travel Better

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 sky-high prices, holiday travel can bring out the Grinch in all of us. Depending on your destination, 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 share the inside scoop on happy holiday travels.

Related: 30 Travel Hacks That Will Save You Money

Know When to Book Flights
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Know When to Book Flights

An analysis of historical booking data by the travel search site Hipmunk found that travelers save an average of 12% if they buy Thanksgiving airfare early in September, and 19% on Christmas airfare — not as good as in past years, but still nothing to sneeze at. “So long as you book before Halloween, you’ll usually avoid the highest prices,” said Adam Goldstein, Hipmunk co-founder and CEO.

Search Smarter
Skyscanner

Search Smarter

Budget travel blogger Jema Patterson, founder of Half the Clothes, said Skyscanner is 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 global metasearch engine, which compares prices on everything from flights to hotels to car rentals. First, she’ll check airfares to her main destination — say, to Rome from Raleigh, North Carolina. Then she’ll search departures from the Raleigh airport and choose the destination "everywhere" on Skyscanner to see if there are significantly cheaper flights to nearby countries, such as Portugal. “From there, it's a cheap budget airline hop to the Roman empire," she said.

Look for Airfare Patterns
Google

Look for Airfare Patterns

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 generally makes it cheaper to fly on Tuesday and Wednesday. The biggest exception, of course, is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. "These patterns aren't universal," Patterson said. "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.

Book Last Minute
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Book Last Minute

Yes, it probably sounds counterintuitive (not to mention terribly nerve-racking), but Patterson insisted 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 said. "But a few days before the holiday, hotels and airlines will offer clearance prices."

Related: 22 Last-Minute Trips to Take Between Christmas and New Year's

Peruse Daily Deal Sites
Groupon

Peruse Daily Deal Sites

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, said Luvleen Sidhu, co-founder and chief strategy officer of BankMobile, a free banking app.

Use Specialized Apps
HotelTonight

Use Specialized Apps

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," Sidhu said. "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.

Consider Off-Season Destinations
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Consider Off-season Destinations

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 said. "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 slow in November and before Christmas.

Housesit Instead of Staying in a Hotel
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Housesit Instead of Staying in a Hotel

Travel blogger Laura Cody has spent years 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 trade-off is access to houses around the world, from Germany to Malaysia to Italy, as well as the United States. If you're lucky, there may even be a home available near your family during the holidays.

Related: Going-Out-of-Town Checklist to Keep Your Home Secure

Relocate an RV
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Relocate an RV

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 United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, sometimes even getting money for gas. 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.

Related: Boondocking and Other RV Terms You Need to Know

Set Up Price Alerts
airfarewatchdog

Set Up Price Alerts

By creating price alerts, travelers can track the cost of travel to a specific destination and get notifications every time the price drops. Patti Reddi, a travel expert and writer for Savvy Globetrotter, said her favorites are SmarterTravel, The Flight Deal, and Airfarewatchdog.

Use Twitter to Stay on Top of Airline Sales
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Use Twitter to Stay on Top of Airline Sales

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 said. Some of the Twitter accounts that regularly tweet airfare deals include @secretflying, @theflightdeal, and @airfarewatchdog.

Follow Hotels on Social Media
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Get on Hotels' Email Lists and Follow Them on Social Media

Mark Murphy, founder of the industry news site TravelPulse, said hotels often advertise last-minute deals via email lists and Twitter and Facebook accounts. Take a few minutes to sign up and follow hotels in the places where you have holiday travel planned.

Fly Early in the Morning or Late in the Day
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Fly Early or Late

Another bit of advice from Murphy: Ticket prices for flights before 8 a.m. and after 8 p.m. are traditionally up to 70% cheaper. Once upon a time, there was also typically no one in the middle seat on these off-hours flights. That's less likely these days, but you still increase your chances by avoiding the absolute most popular times.

Travel on the Holiday
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Travel on the Holiday

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 and least crowded day to travel is always the actual holiday, TravelPulse's Murphy said. "It's up to 80% less than days before or days after."

Don't Always Think Round-Trip
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Don't Always Think Round-Trip

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, Murphy said. "It's a bit more of a hassle but easier on the wallet in the end."

See If Your Employer Has Preferred Hotel Rates
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See If Your Employer Has Preferred Hotel Rates

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, said Suzanne Wolko, a former global travel adviser for investment firms and now a travel agent and blogger at PhilaTravelGirl.

Check Out New Hotels
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Check Out New Hotels

We're not talking new locations of big, established chain hotels such as Marriott or Hilton, but rather smaller, lesser-known offerings. Often these properties offer more value for the price, Wolko said.

Consider Alternate Airports
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Consider Alternate Airports

Searching flights to and from less traveled airports — even small ones — can often result in savings, said Clem Bason, founder and CEO of the hotel deal site GoSeek (and former president of Hotwire). In particular, he said, pay attention to alternate airports dominated by Southwest Airlines, where savings can be significant.

Try Highly Rated 2- and 3-Star Hotels
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Try Highly Rated 2- and 3-Star Hotels

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, said Justine McDonald of online travel agency CheapTickets, part of Expedia Group. 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.

Related: 20 Cities Where You Can Score 5-Star Hotels at 3-Star Prices

Always Assume You Can Save More on Hotels
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Always Assume You Can Save More on Hotels

Savvy shoppers know they can easily save 15% to 20% on advertised hotel prices, Bason said. 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.

Book a Package
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Book a Package

By buying components of a trip such as a flight, hotel, and car together, consumers can trim the total cost significantly, said Justine McDonald, senior brand manager for 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 said.

Check Costco for Rental Cars
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Check Costco for Rental Cars

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 said, adding that reservations often include a second driver for free and are easily changed or canceled.

Consider Group Tours
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Consider Group Tours

For those traveling during the holidays purely for pleasure, with no specific family events to attend, group tours can offer significant cost savings. "You can save anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars traveling with a group," said Greg Geronemus, co-CEO of SmarTours. "Tour operators have significant purchasing power and, quite simply, by going with a group, you spread lots of costs across a group of people."

Delay Until January
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Delay Until January

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 said. "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."