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Holiday Travel Gouges: Can You Avoid Them?

With Christmas and New Year's days falling on Tuesdays, many of you will also be taking the two Mondays off from work, meaning two successive four-day weekends and an 11-day period with only three working days. A vacation clearly beckons. But travel suppliers can also look at the calendar, and many hike their rates for what they expect to be top-demand times.

Every year, Priceline posts a report on the "best" days and the "good" days to fly during the holiday season, based on its own airfare database. This year (at time of publication), the only "best" day that falls within the holiday period is December 25; going into the holidays, the closest "best" day is December 18, which is too early for many of you. "Good" days give you a somewhat better selection, including December 17, 19, 24, 27, 28, 31 and January 1 and 2 (at time of publication). Not surprisingly, weekend days before, during, and immediately after the holidays are neither "best" nor even "good."

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Priceline's conclusions are generally supported by Hotwire's TripStarter data, showing fares actually paid, but the charts do not provide the daily detail that Priceline does. Still, Hotwire's data show that fares to many popular winter destinations increase dramatically. Last year, fares to a handful of warm-weather destinations went up strongly during the last half of December, with some more than doubling. And, over the years, these year-to-year patterns track very closely. Hotwire's data show that hotel rates also follow the same patterns.

Rental car companies can really gouge visitors at some popular destinations. Last year, CheapCarRental reported that agencies hiked rates for the cheapest available car during the December 23–28 period, compared with January rates, by outrageous increases of 268 percent in Miami, 216 percent in Orlando, and 194 percent in Honolulu, with increases of 70 to 135 percent in Boston, Chicago, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, and San Diego.

The big question, of course, is how to avoid price gouges and full occupancies. Beyond the frivolous answer of "stay home," you can sometimes avoid the worst gouges. Here are some suggestions:

  • If you can, try to find an airfare to fly on one of Priceline's "good" days. Bending the vacation schedule a day or two can have a big payoff on airfare.
  • Avoid the most popular warm-weather destinations. The year-end holiday period is the busiest time of the year in many destinations—among them Hawaii—and is a very busy season at many others. Airlines and hotels command top dollar. But business travel generally comes to a complete halt during the holidays, so many big-city hotels that normally cater to business travelers are hungry to fill rooms. Some just cut rates; some offer packages that include shopping deals with entertainment: A quick Google search came up with Nutcracker-themed hotel packages in more than a dozen cities this year, and that's just a start.
  • For hotel accommodations, take a look at vacation rentals as well as ordinary hotels. Although most price seasonally, you may find a bit less gouging.

Include air-hotel, air-car, or air-hotel-car packages in your searches. Most big airlines and the big online travel agencies put together packages that can often come to a lower total than arranging the individual parts on your own. On a quick test, for example, I found that an air-rental car package on Allegiant from Eugene, Oregon, to Honolulu for the holiday week added $372 more than airfare for a one-week car rental, compared with the best car-only deal available on Expedia for more than $600. In times past, I've been able to find air-hotel packages to Hawaii or the Caribbean during the top holiday season when the hotels all showed out of available rooms.

Also, consider Europe or Asia. Although airfares to such blockbuster destinations as London, Paris, and Rome show a minor spike for mid-December, they're well under summer levels, and hotel rates are generally low.

Clearly, you can't totally avoid gouges and still travel to an attractive destination. But you can at least minimize those gouges—and still have a great vacation.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

(Photo: Woman - Anxious, Looking at Laptop via Shutterstock)

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