Traveling during the holiday season is notoriously painful. Airports are packed leading up to major days like Christmas and New Years, and winter storms often cause flight delays and cancellations. Hotels and airlines also tend to jack up their prices for the few days or weeks they know everyone is planning on traveling. The average snowbird's getaway or trip to grandmas' can get expensive fast. The good news is that the holiday season doesn’t need to be so difficult – there are tons of ways you can make the trip easier and even enjoyable at every stage. To help you focus on the stuff that really matters during the holidays, check out these expert tips for finding the best deals and ensuring you have a memorable and stress-free holiday season.
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The holidays can be stressful as it is, but planning every phase of your journey is the best way to ensure you'll be able to actually relax. Mahesh Chaddah, co-founder of hotel booking site Reservations.com, suggests locking down accommodations three to four weeks in advance. Be mindful of your timing: Rooms will book up fast as Christmas gets closer, but booking too early won’t let you in on deals that might come up later.
To get the most value out of a hotel booking, don’t take the rate the hotel has up on its website at face value. There are often “hidden” unpublished rates on mobile apps, through the call center, or once you log onto bookings website such as Reservations.com. A little bit of sleuthing could save you up to 30 percent on your stay, says Chaddah.
When you start your search for great hotels, don’t just look at big chains. Smaller boutique hotels have to stay competitive with each other and the big guys, and often offer perks to separate themselves from the pack. Look... around for bonuses like complimentary breakfasts, flexible check in and check out hours, and free wireless. If you’re traveling with kids, ask about kid perks like free meals or fun welcome gifts.
If you’re having trouble just finding a room to book even weeks in advance, try extending your stay. Chaddah says that for some big holiday events, like the ball drop in NYC, hotels know that everyone will be on the same schedule and lock rates down for those one or two nights. If you have the flexibility, come in a night earlier or leave the one after, you might be able to snag rooms and rates that hotels are offering only to those willing to stay longer.
If you’re staying close to home and not traveling outside of the state, ask if the hotel offers a locals discount for state residents when you make the booking or at checkout. It’s not an uncommon practice and it can never hurt to ask!
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Flights also need to be booked early if you want to avoid huge holiday rate hikes. Erin Warren at splender.com advises doing it 47 days ahead of your planned departure, so lock down your travel days as soon as you can. Be conscious of what day you travel on. According to Sojern's 2016 Travel Insights Report, Sundays and Mondays are the cheapest days to travel, and will be less crowded than Thursdays and Fridays.
When you first start looking, Tom Spagnola of CheapOair.com recommends searching for connecting flights through smaller airports. They are looking to be competitive with major hubs in their area and will offer discounts to attract business from holiday travelers – not to mention you won’t have to deal with the holiday masses. If you can, take a redeye flight. Airlines know that most people will avoid traveling overnight, and offer discount prices to make sure they can fill the plane. You can also try combining two one-way flights on different airlines instead of booking a... round-trip on the same carrier. Search around for special flash sales and combine them to get huge savings.
Because you’ll likely be traveling in some pretty horrible weather, try to avoid layovers in places that have particularly tough or unpredictable weather like Chicago and Dallas. Fly through somewhere like Las Vegas or Phoenix even if it is a little out of the way, and you could end up saving time (and stress!) that might have been lost to weather problems.
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In the Crowds
There’s no doubt that roads and airports will be packed this holiday season, and you want to do anything you can to avoid a holiday nightmare. If leaving one hour early for the airport is your normal rule of thumb, up it to two hours – you’ll thank yourself after seeing the size of the TSA line. If your traveling around Christmastime, avoid the week leading up to the 25. According to research from Sojern, December 23 is the busiest travel day during December.
To speed up the check-in process and avoid high luggage fees, ship your luggage by ground and use a mobile boarding pass to totally skip the lines at the bag drop counter. Airlines are trending towards lowering ticket prices but upping bag fees according to Spagnola, so if you’re planning on packing presents for family and friends, shipping luggage will save you the expensive nightmare of overweight bag fees. Once you’re through the check-in process, it’s important to make sure you can make it through TSA security as quickly as... possible – you’ll likely have lost valuable time standing in line. Check out the TSA website for specific rules on liquids and laptops.
Downloading travel apps is also a great way to help you through holiday travel. All large airlines have apps that can keep track of your reservations and send you notifications about gate changes, delays and boarding times. An app called SeatGuru was developed by TripAdvisor, and also offers real-time flight tracking and airplane seat maps. If you’re making a connection, Spagnola says it’s a good idea to always know what your flight number is and how tight the connection will be. If you do end up with a cancelled flight, try to avoid charging straight to the ticket counter. Instead, use your phone to rebook the next flight to your connection, or call the service center at your airline or at a bookings site like CheapOair.com.
If something does start to go wrong, don't stress. Hotel and airline workers want to help, and a smile can go a long way. Make sure to charge up your phone before heading out, and bring IDs in your carry-on bag. You'll be set in case of emergency!