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Cost-Cutting Travel Strategies for the Holidays

SmarterTravel

The combination of rising costs and a slowing economy will put a big squeeze on travel plans for at least some of us. As one reader put it:

“We want to go away for the holidays (I’m sick of cooking, decorating, fussing), but with high airfares and gas prices, we don’t want to plan anything big. Don’t suggest that we stay with relatives—we would rather crawl into our own basement and pretend we’re away. Any suggestions?”

If you’ve been reading travel publications at all recently, you’ve already seen lots of “tips” about “saving money” on holiday travel. Most of them are valid, although a few tend to be pedestrian and obvious. In addition to summarizing some of them briefly, I suggest stepping back and taking a second look at the bigger picture.

Same Trip, Lower Costs

Most of the tips you see concentrate on finding ways to retain the basics of a trip—time, destination, activities, and such—while cutting its cost. And many of those center on airfares, which may or may not be the controlling factor in an individual trip. Among them:

  • General: Follow the “sales;” book through sites that search lots of sources such as our Compare Prices feature; look for air/hotel packages; use an opaque site for accommodations and car—even airfare if you aren’t fussy about schedule—but only if you’re 100 percent certain you won’t have to change your plans.
  • Airfares: Check alternate airports; avoid peak days and times; find cheap connecting flights rather than nonstops. Read our story on 12 ways to tame high holiday airfares.
  • Accommodations: Book through “discount” sites; stay near the beach rather than on it, in a suburb rather than the center city, and such; go downmarket a “star rating” or two; find a vacation rental rather than a hotel or resort; arrange a home exchange.
  • Rental cars: Book at an off-airport location; drive a smaller car.

If family obligations, scheduled events, or other rigid requirements control your holiday travel timing and destination, these are about your only options.

Do Something Else

If, however, you aren’t tied into a specific destination and timing, you have several options:

Same Kind of Trip, but Closer to Home

You can cut total trip costs by finding the sort of destination activity you like closer to home instead of the one you originally planned. If you live in the East, go to Atlantic City rather than Las Vegas; in the West, go to San Francisco rather than New York; in the Midwest, go to the Gulf Coast rather than the Caribbean. You get the idea.

Different Kind of Trip

Obviously, if you live anywhere outside the South or Southwest and demand warm holiday weather, you’ll have to travel some distance for a good shot at warm weather. You won’t find a close-in golf vacation anywhere near Minneapolis, for example, or any sunny beaches near Boston. But you can have a terrific vacation even in cold weather—just change your sights a bit.

Consider a city vacation instead of a beach resort. Big-city business hotels—the ones that depend on business travel—often run big sales and offer promotional show and shopping packages over the very slow holiday season. You can probably find holiday shopping and Nutcracker packages in close to a dozen cities. Or find a nearby resort that offers a mix of good prices and off-season activity promotions. The holiday season is still early for many ski resorts, for example, so hotels and shops in the bigger ski centers are working hard for business before the slopes open.

Your Backyard

Even if you set a limit for yourself of no more than one reasonably easy driving day—a radius of 400 miles or so—you can probably find dozens of interesting places to visit and things to do. Whether you’re looking at parks and facilities for outdoor recreation, cities for events and attractions, or shopping, I can’t think of anywhere in the U.S. where you can’t find something attractive within that limit. Take a look at the travel section of your Sunday paper (or the Sunday paper of the big city nearest you), where you’ll probably find dozens of holiday-season promotions from resort areas, cities, and towns in the same region.

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