Celebrating the winter holidays with family and friends is worth waiting the entire year for – but planning your trip is a whole other story. With expensive flights, bumper-to-bumper traffic, crowded airports, often terrible winter weather and more than 100 million Americans traveling in the same short few weeks, the holiday season can be one of the most stressful times of the year. Thankfully, with these smart, holiday travel hacks, you can save time, money and your sanity.
1. Book Your Flight YESTERDAY
Everyone knows that booking your flight early will yield cheaper fares, more seat availability and better routes, yet so many people wait until the last minute. Some vacationers still believe that there’s a chance there could be last-minute holiday travel deals but the likelihood of that happening is zero to negative zero (unless you’re booking a vacation package to an exotic destination, but even then you still don’t want to take the risk of waiting until the last minute). Domestic airlines know their seats will sell out so they offer few deals, and key travel dates (like the day before Thanksgiving) will be a lot more expensive the longer you wait. The best time to book Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years travel is four weeks in advance of the holiday (though the most optimal time is in August, which you can prepare for next year). Buy your tickets now to avoid any regret for not booking earlier!
2. Avoid Peak Days
Even if you manage to find a great deal traveling on a peak day (like November 23, November 27, December 23 or December 31), you’ll be subject to crowded airports, terrible traffic, increased Uber rates and plenty of delays. If you have nerves of steel, the scenario may not impact you, but you need to consider any potential snags along the way, like a snowstorm that could cancel thousands of flights, an accident on the highway that could deter your path or even the possibility of being bumped on an overbooked flight. On peak days, seat availability is minimal, so the chances of you getting on another flight are slim and, if even if you do, it could cost you hundreds of dollars. Do you really want to be stuck at an airport for hours with thousands of other passengers in the worst-case scenario? If you have time to spare an extra day or two for the holidays, go ahead and do it. Be flexible, and just remember: the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after Thanksgiving are the two most expensive and stressful days to fly in the entire year!
3. Use Your Airmiles.
There’s no sense in hoarding your miles. Frequent-flier miles have significantly lost value over the years, and it’s harder to use them. Airlines are offering fewer award seat availabilities, earning miles is a lot harder (airlines are offering rewards based on dollar spent rather than miles flown), and the only travelers truly benefiting are loyal business travelers. Flights over the holidays are already expensive, so why not cash in? If you do find cheap airfare, you can use your miles to upgrade to first class. The perks are obviously worth it during vacation time (dedicated fast lane at the airport, free checked bag, first to board, etc), which helps holiday travel become less of a hassle. You can also use your miles for gifts (like merchandise and gift cards) for family and friends. It’s best to use miles now in any way before they further depreciate in a few years’ time.
4. Arrive Super Early
As travelers, we get in the habit of arriving at the airport just in time for our flights. Make an exception over the holidays and allow at least two hours for domestic travel. Highway traffic can get congested over the holidays, especially with thousands of vacationers going to the same airport. Security lines will also be longer, which is not only stressful but could prevent you from making your flight. Here’s a tip: imagine what the airport was like on your last holiday vacation (Memorial Day, Fourth of July, etc). Now double that for the upcoming holidays. It’s nothing but anxiety inducing. Download your favorite TV show and saddle up at an airport bar or visit some airport shops you typically never have time for to avoid any airport stress! If you’re driving to a destination, count on highway traffic, packed gas stations, overcrowded roadside restaurants and more delays that can cause snags. According to AAA, 43 million people hit the highway during the holidays, so the earlier you leave, the better off you are getting to your destination in a timely manner.
5. Book a Vacation Rental
Survey after survey proves that most vacationers would rather stay in a hotel than with their family over the holidays (it’s often too stressful!), and many try to book hotels that are either A) sold out or B) way too expensive over the holidays. A vacation rental is the perfect solution, and you can even have your family and friends along for the stay. Vacation rentals are equipped with luxe amenities (with full kitchens so you can still cook that turkey), have multiple rooms, are easy to get to and are in exciting tropical or mountain destinations that are perfect for spending the holidays in. They’re also great bang for your buck when you consider expensive, crowded hotels with little privacy. Vacations generally bring the family together, and it sure beats staying in your old childhood room in some suburb.
6. Turn on Private Browsing on Your Computer
Ever wonder why airfare never seems to go down? Cookies on every website you use to hunt travel bargains generally store your searches, knowing what flights and hotels you’re looking at. The prices and rates will rise simply because you’ve searched for those flights again and again. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the (Internet) book, and you can avoid this by turning on private browsing and clearing your cache.
7. Mail your gifts
Rather than tirelessly searching websites to find what TSA will and will not accept over the holidays and the risk of having wrapped Christmas gifts opened, mail your gifts in advance. It’s more reliable. With all the pandemonium happening at airports over the holidays (the chances of lost luggage is higher around Thanksgiving and Christmas), mailing your gifts will bring peace of mind, especially when you can track your presents via FedEx or UPS. Plus, that’s less for you to lug at the airport, and you can avoid baggage fees.
Thinking of renting a home for the holidays? Start here