Smart Parent's Guide to Holiday Travel with Kids

  • 01 of 16

    'Tis the Season to be Savvy

    Mother holding daughter at airport
    Granger Wootz/Blend Images/Getty Images

    If your family is planning a Thanksgiving or Christmas getaway, one thing you can count on is that you’ll have many traveling companions. If this year’s holiday season is anything like we’ve seen in past years, we can look forward to busier highways, jam-packed flights, and steep prices.

    The silver lining is that there’s an awful lot you can do to minimize the downsides of traveling during the holiday season. Here’s some excellent advice for those of us without flying reindeer.

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  • 02 of 16

    Pick a Destination You Can Drive To


    Airfares go sky high during the peak holiday season, airports are crowded, and flights are full. If you can pile the family in the car and drive, it’s the single best way to spend less.  For tips on how to make car trips more fun and less hassled, see the Smart Parent’s Guide to Road Trips with Kids.

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  • 03 of 16

    Book Hotels and Flights ASAP


    ‘Tis the season to pay top dollar. Airfares for holiday periods rise 20 to 50 percent between September and November. There’s no point in holding out for a sweet last-minute deal, and by waiting you take the risk of being shut out of your desired hotel and flights. Instead, look for good overall value and be open to the places that offer the best combination of air, hotel, and activities.

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  • 04 of 16

    Flying? Be Flexible with Dates

    lunchtimemama/Flickr Creative Commons

    During the holidays, fares tend to roughly mimic the school calendars. Schools in the same region tend to take the same holiday breaks, which means families are all looking to get away at the same time.

    Not surprisingly, the weekends just before and after Thanksgiving and Christmas promise the double whammy of crowded planes and high prices. Conversely, if you’re willing to travel on a holiday itself—Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day—you can often snag a better price.

    Want lower prices still? If you are willing to let your kids miss a day or two of school and move your travel dates before or after those peak holiday weekends, it can make a significant difference to both price and comfort.  

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  • 05 of 16

    Play Dead


    In the travel industry, a period immediately following a peak holiday period—such as right after Thanksgiving or right after New Year’s—is known as a “dead week.” If your kids are still in pre-school and your dates are flexible, timing your holiday getaway for a dead week can result in really big savings.  

    Many resorts drop prices just after Thanksgiving weekend or right after New Year's. 

    And one of the least expensive times to visit Walt Disney World is immediately after the New Year until mid-February.

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  • 06 of 16

    Find a Shoulder


    For every destination that’s in high season, there’s another place in low season. A tried-and-true money-saving trick is to simply target off-season destinations.

    Looking for a more affordable Thanksgiving getaway? Consider a beach getaway in the Caribbean, where it’s shoulder season. Or opt for an earlybird ski trip at any of the Western ski mountains that open before Turkey day.

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  • 07 of 16

    Choose Travel Times Wisely

    ryaninc/Flickr Creative Commons

    Airport delays have a knock-on effect, piling up as the day wears on and creating afternoon logjams. Your best defense against getting stuck in airport quagmire is to choose early-morning and, preferably, non-stop flights. If you have a layover, give yourself more wiggle room than usual between connections.

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  • 08 of 16

    When Calculating Cost, Include Fees


    Just when you think you snagged a low airfare, you may need to budget for a bigger spend. Airfarewatchdog’s airline fee chart shows just how fee-happy the airline industry has become.

    For starters, will you be checking any baggage? Some airlines now charge for carry-on bags and most major airlines now charge $25 for your first checked bag. For a typical family of four checking four bags, fees can add up to $200 to the cost of a round trip.

    If you have a choice in airlines, consider this: JetBlue doesn't charge anything for a first checked bag, and Southwest Airlines lets each passenger check two bags for free.

    Apply the same principle when researching hotels. Find out about resort fees and other surcharges before you book so there are no nasty surprises when you check out.

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  • 09 of 16

    Stressed About When to Book? Know This

    Southwest Airlines

    Many travelers worry about when to pull the trigger and book their flights, afraid that the fare will drop after they commit. During the holiday period, the negatives to waiting outweigh the positives, since prices are unlikely to fall while flights are likely to sell out.

    In general, though, there are some advantages to booking directly with the airline instead of through third-party booking sites. If your flight's airfare falls after you book your flight, you may be able to recoup a refund for the price difference.

    Airfarewatchdog has put together a handy chart for airline fare drop policies. In general, if the fare drops for the same price category on the exact same flight, some (but not all) airlines will refund the price difference, minus a rebooking fee. Sounds good, but unfortunately, in most cases the high rebooking fee, typically $75-$200, will wipe out any potential savings.

    On the bright side, three domestic airlines do not to charge a rebooking fee when there's a fare drop. Among those, Southwest Airlines has a particularly straightforward process that gives you a cash refund instead of a voucher for future travel. If you're worried your fare dropping after you book, it's worth factoring this into your airline choice.

    If you don't want to worry about tracking your airfare, a website called will do it for you, and will alert you if you're entitled to a refund. 

    See also: How to Get a Travel Refund When the Price Goes Down

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  • 10 of 16

    Flying? Ship, Don't Pack, Presents


    Flying to visit family and friends? While it's a nice thought to arrive bearing gifts, it can be impractical.

    If you bring wrapped presents in your carry-on, the security agents may ask you to unwrap them for inspection. And packing large gifts in your checked luggage can eat up valuable space and end up costing you extra money in fees.

    The very best option is to ship presents directly to your destination. 

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  • 11 of 16

    Get Seats Together on the Plane

    Juhan Sonin/Flickr Creative Commons

    Flying with young kids? It may come as a rude surprise that most airlines do not automatically seat families together. In a recent Q&A column, I addressed the difficulty in getting a seat on the plane next to your own kid, and I also wrote about it in this travel story.

    It has become customary for airlines to ask families to pony up for a preferred seating fee in order to choose seats together. This relatively new charge can add $9 to $39 to the cost of each ticket on a major carrier.

    Since Southwest does not assign seats, it remains one airline where it’s easier for families to sit together. Just remember to use online check-in within 24 hours of departure to get an early boarding zone, print boarding documents and save time at the airport.

    While I normally recommend avoiding fees, during the holidays you may decide to pay the preferred seating fee rather than stress about having to jump through hoops to sit with your child.

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  • 12 of 16

    Buy Travel Insurance

    Kyle Simourd/Flickr Creative Commons

    You may not buy travel insurance for every trip. But during busy travel periods, there’s a greater risk of delays, cancellations, and other ways for a trip to go wrong. Travel insurance is relatively cheap and easy to buy online, and it offers protection of your travel investment. 

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  • 13 of 16

    Know Your Rights as a Flyer


    Flights are more likely to be cancelled or delayed during the busy holiday season. If it happens on your vacation, does the airline owe you a meal voucher, a night at a hotel, or some other compensation? Here’s how to find out what you’re entitled to and how to get it.

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  • 14 of 16

    Put Your Smartphone to Work


    One of your best resources is in your pocket. Here’s how to use your smartphone as a travel tool, and here are some of my favorite free travel apps for families.

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  • 15 of 16

    Short on Time? Consider a Travel Agent


    The holiday period is one of those times when a travel agent can be a godsend. Hunting down the lowest airfare during a peak flying season can be incredibly frustrating and time-consuming, and a good agent will not only do the legwork for you, she’ll also do the follow-up. Many agents will even proactively apply discounts that come out after you book, so you are essentially price protected.

    The key is to ask questions about services and costs upfront. In most cases, such as when booking a Disney vacation, it won't cost you anything extra to use a travel specialist.

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  • 16 of 16

    Looking for Value? Consider a Vacation Rental


    When looking for plenty of space and the creature comforts of home, many families turn to vacation rentals for a value-minded getaway. According to, the largest online marketplace for vacation home rental listings, the top 10 most sought-after destinations for the Thanksgiving weekend prove that Americans just love mountain getaways.