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7 Ways to Save on Holiday Travel


If you’re trying to figure out when to book holiday travel, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that it’s not too late to save on holiday travel for 2018; the bad news is that booking at exactly the “right” time might not save you too much.

Turns out that even if you book super early, you might not find any bargains; this year I searched for holiday flights to Honolulu at the 330-day mark, the six-month mark, and just this week, and have seen almost no change in fares for week between Christmas and New Year’s. The airlines know someone is going to buy those fares, so they barely mess around with bargains at all.

That said, 2018 isn’t a bad year for holiday travel, especially if you are traveling abroad, according to Tracy Stewart of Airfarewatchdog, SmarterTravel’s sister site.

“Holiday fares are on par with previous years, if not slightly cheaper, at least as of mid-September,” Stewart says. “The biggest price drops this year are on international routes, where increased competition has driven fares way down.”

If you are flexible about destinations, lodging options, and in some cases travel days, it is not impossible to save on holiday travel this year. In fact, there are tons of deals available right now that are almost as cheap as staying home. Here’s how to find them.

Use a Fare-Tracking Application

Using a fare-tracking site like Airfarewatchdog, Hopper, or Skyscanner can help you get a sense very quickly of the typical range of airfares for your route so you can understand what is and is not a good deal.

On Google Flights, for example, prices show up on a calendar as soon as you put your departure and destination airports into the system, allowing you to see the most affordable dates even before you hit search.

More broadly, a site like Airfarewatchdog can show you the absolute bottom-dollar prices for your departure airport to a heap of popular destinations, which can help you choose both your dates and your destination. See an example here for flights from Newark, New Jersey.

“If you have your eye on a particular route, search often and set fare alerts at Airfarewatchdog, Google Flights, Kayak, etc., and subscribe to airline sales,” Stewart advises. “There may not be very many seats available at the lowest fare, and you want to make sure you’re tuned in early enough to grab one.”

Check School Calendars

To avoid the most traveled days (and pick the least traveled), check your local school district’s calendar.

With New Year’s Day falling on a Tuesday this year, the rush to get kids back to school will be more diffuse than most years, with some schools resuming classes on January 2 or 3 (concentrated in northern states to accommodate potential snow days), and many others staying closed until the following Monday, January 7. Depending on the school calendars in your area, the day before the first day of school is almost always a massive travel day, and prices can be prohibitively expensive.

It can also help to know when classes resume at universities near you, as they often start on different dates than the public schools, but still create high volume on the day before school starts.

Check for Business-Class Fares

Stewart notes that you can sometimes get yourself some prime seats by searching on business-class fares, which always go down during the holiday stretch as business travelers take a break. The seats will usually be higher than coach fares, but if it is a long flight it may be worth the extra cash to get a bigger seat as well as expedited security and boarding—and don’t forget built-in baggage fees, which can make a higher fare more affordable since you don’t have to pay for luggage.

Try a Travel Agent

My local travel agency focuses almost entirely on package deals that feature pretty standard flights, slightly off-the-radar and off-brand hotels, and down-the-road-a-piece destinations. While the packages the agency offers tend not to be dream vacations, they do tend to be enjoyable, easy to book, and affordable—which might fit the bill if you need a relaxing holiday getaway.

Look for Package Deals

Much like the deals on offer at the storefront travel agent, many package deals are for spots that are just down the road from top destinations. For example, if you search on Miami, the best deals might be for Sunny Isles Beach to the north—or if you search on San Diego, you might end up north of town (although everything I found while researching this article was in or near downtown, including a couple of hotels right on Mission Bay).

Just last week I found a package deal to Miami from December 26 – 31 for $915/person (plus another $100 for a rental car) that included nonstop airfare, five nights at an oceanfront hotel with free Wi-Fi and parking, and all taxes and fees (save for baggage fees).

For the same dates, I found an all-inclusive deal for $830 at Paradise Point Resort on Mission Bay in San Diego that included nonstop airfare, an economy car, and five nights hotel, with additional surcharges for baggage, parking, and breakfast.

To find similar deals, go to any booking site and pick the Vacation Packages or similar option (on Expedia it is the “Bundle and Save” tab), and then do a search by departure and destination as usual.

Consider a Cruise

There are a fair number of cruise lines out there, and they often compete pretty aggressively for patrons, even during peak seasons. Since their main goal is to put people in the cabins, they offer incentives all the time; as one traveler recently told me, “they’re like the Gap; when one sale ends, another starts.”

As it goes, cruise lines start offering deals about three months out from sailing (which is right about now), as noted on SmarterTravel’s sister site Cruise Critic—with the caveat that these deals are not always for the best rooms on the ship, and you might have to accept inside cabins, having your family booked in non-adjacent rooms, and other nagging inconveniences.

Travel During a Dead Week Instead

Just before and after the major winter holidays each year are so-called travel “dead weeks,” dates where vacation travel is at a yearlong low. In some cases these also correspond to a decline in business travel as holiday hours start to kick in and winter weather inspires folks to stay put.

There are two main “dead week” stretches, each about 10 days long: the time between the two December weekends immediately following Thanksgiving, and the time between the first two January post-New Year’s weekends, which falls this year in the January 10 – 21 range.

While it’s not technically “holiday travel,” taking a winter getaway at some of the lowest prices of the year is definitely worth your consideration.

One Caveat: Don’t Purchase Solely Based on Price

The best fares tend also to involve the trickiest or most inconvenient itineraries, a risky approach for a holiday itinerary that tends to be tightly scheduled.

“Connecting flights will cost less but for good reason,” Stewart said. “Delays and cancellations caused by winter weather can leave you stranded in your connecting city, so it may be worth it to splurge on the nonstop.”

In the end, right now might actually be the best time to save on holiday travel.

“Most travelers tend to think they’ll find the best deals by booking as far in advance as possible, which isn’t always the case,” Stewart notes. “A really great fare can appear at any time, even the week before your ideal departure date. Holiday fares are, of course, an entirely different animal. Sure, fares have been known to drop by a bit in the days leading up to the holiday, but most people don’t want to leave it to chance until the last minute. Holiday trips tend to require a lot more planning in terms of syncing up with extended family and arranging time off from work, so for that reason most folks will want to search early. September and October tend to be the sweet spot for holiday deal hunting.”

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Ed Hewitt is a seasoned globetrotter who brings you a monthly glimpse into the latest travel news, views, and trends—and how they could affect your travel plans.

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