It's Time! Ten Tips for Holiday Travel

The holidays are fast approaching, but don't wait for those Christmas decorations to appear before booking your flights—unless you like paying triple the normal fare, that is. Yes, you have days off and family obligations, but so does the rest of the country, which means sold-out planes, skyrocketing ticket prices, and general stress. Read on for our expert holiday travel tips, and soon the only thing you'll have to stress about is sticking to your diet over Thanksgiving.

1. Book Early: We say this every year, and for a good reason. Thanksgiving and Christmas fares spike after Columbus Day, and guess what? Columbus Day has come and gone. So get that fare search started. But don't be in such a rush to book that you buy a ticket for a schedule you can't keep—rebooking fees will cost you even more than waiting.

2. Decide Your Max Price: Find out how much tickets are going for today on your holiday route, and then set an absolute ceiling for what you're willing to spend. For example, if you only want to spend $300 on a round-trip ticket and you're seeing fares of $250, you should grab that flight instead of waiting and hoping for a $200 seat.

3. Don't Count on a Last-Minute Deal: Major airlines are facing major budget problems, and many (including Delta and United) have cut the number of flights they're running. This means the best flights will sell out early, and that airlines won't be rushing to cut prices to fill seats—because they know they'll be running sold-out flights anyway.

4. Avoid Peak Travel Days/Times: Sure, you want to fly the Sunday after Thanksgiving and the day before Christmas Eve to avoid having to take time off from work, but so does everyone else. The best days for holiday this year (as indicated by Priceline) will be November 19, 20, 21, 24, 25, 29 and 30; and December 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 24, 25, 27 and 31. Avoid November 18, 20, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28; and December 22, 23, 26, 29. You'll also have a better chance of finding cheaper fares at less popular times of the day (i.e., early morning and late night). Bonus: The first flights of the day are less likely to be delayed, and security lines are less likely to be backed up.

5. Consider Alternative Airports: Widen your search past the main airports in your area for better deals. For example, if you're flying in to Washington, D.C., check Dulles, Reagan, and even Baltimore, too. But be sure to factor in the savings against time/cost to get to the airport—if you're only saving $20 by flying to Baltimore, is it worth the extra time and gas money to get to and from there?

6. Factor in Fees/Final Price: Before you hit the book button, consult our newly updated Airline Fees: The Ultimate Guide to see how much that ticket is really going to cost. Sure, the Spirit ticket may look like it's the cheapest, but once you pay for your carry-on and checked bag, is it really the lowest price?

7. Sign Up for Fare Alerts: A great way to get the best fare is to spend hours every day searching all the airline websites and online travel agencies for the best rates, which change by the minute. You probably don't have time for that—but luckily, we do. Subscribe to our Deal Alert, Departure City Alert, and City-to-City newsletters to be notified of cheap flights.

8. Plan Ahead for Airport Crowds/Parking/Security Lines: Feeling really smug because you snagged a cheap ticket? You won't feel that way if you end up missing your plane because of other holiday travelers, who are causing unexpectedly full parking lots, long security lines, and ticking/bag-drop slowdowns. Minimize the number of lines you'll need to stand in by not checking any bags and printing out your tickets at home. Have a back-up plan in case your go-to parking lot is full. Better yet, have a friend/shuttle service drop you off. Leave plenty of time (more than usual) to get through long security lines—the plane is not going to wait for you.

9. Consider Alternative Transportation Options: Sure, flying seems the fastest way on paper, but are you factoring in the time to/from the airport and security lines? Price out an Amtrak ticket before you automatically book a plane ticket—it may be a longer trip, but most train stations are located right in the center of cities, unlike airports. Plus, you can roll up to the train station 15 minutes before the train leaves, impossible at airports. Driving may strand you in holiday traffic for hours, but at least you won't have to worry about flight overbookings/cancellations. Try mapping out some back routes or downloading apps/GPS programs that update you in real time as to where backups are. Plus, driving or going by train lets you pack as much as you can carry (including liquids) and keep your shoes on.

10. Weigh and Measure Your Bags to Avoid Price Gouging at the Gate: Sure, your bag may have met the carry-on standard before you packed it, but now that it's stuffed full of holiday gifts, it may have expanded past the maximum allowance. Weigh and measure before you get to the airport—it will save you from getting slammed with unexpected fees at the gate. You'll also be ready if it seems like the baggage counter scale is off—in the airlines' favor.

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