How to Get the Best Travel Deals This Holiday Season

Find out the ideal time to book flights and lodging with these insider tips on scoring the best prices on holiday travel.

Woman on Smartphone Standing in Front of Christmas Tree Display

by NEA Member Benefits

Sep 21, 2021

Editor’s Note: NEA Member Benefits understands how much you love to travel and how much you’ve missed it. As states begin to relax their regulations with regard to COVID-19 and more Americans become vaccinated, travel is opening up more and more. Before planning a trip, read the health and safety protocols and requirements for visitors to any destination, as well as those of airlines, car rentals and hotels before booking and again before traveling.

Key takeaways

  • Booking flights in advance or flying on actual holidays may help you save money.
  • Reserving lodging at least 90 days in advance over the holidays will ensure availability and the best rates.

We’ve taken the mystery out of “when to book” your everyday travel plans. But do the same rules apply when it comes to holiday travel? We’re sharing our holiday travel tips extra early this year so you can take advantage of the best deals. Because before you know it, the holiday season will be here—and you’ll be ready.

We’ve called on more travel experts to share their best tips to help you maximize your holiday budget, save money and get the flights and rooms you desire.

Use the NEA Travel booking portal

As an NEA member, you can save through NEA Travel, which gives you access to prices not available elsewhere on hotels, airfare, cruises, rental cars and even guided tours. As an added bonus, you can earn Travel Dollars that can be used like cash to pay for future travel. You’ll also find deals at travel-related retailers and restaurants through the NEA Discount Marketplace. Always visit NEA Member Benefits before booking any trips to look for amazing deals on everything related to your travel needs.

How to save on holiday flights

“Booking in advance continues to be a strategy I would recommend, and most rates become available approximately 320 days in advance of the travel date,” says Curtis J. Kowalski, senior travel consultant at American Express Travel.

Booking that early “may not always turn up the least expensive rate, but travelers will find what they’re looking for at a smaller premium than those who wait until the last minute to book their flights,” he says.

According to Skyscanner.com, September is the best time to book Thanksgiving travel, although the first week of October often still has good deals. October is the best time to book Christmas travel, and for domestic flights, booking between October 8 and November 19 can turn up good deals.

The days of the week that you research fares also can have a big impact on the deals you’re able to find. “Airlines process demand for flights over the weekend, so searching on a Monday or Tuesday usually returns the lowest fares,” says Werner Kunz, chief strategy officer of CheapOair.

However, waiting until the last minute does have its advantages. “Don’t book when everyone else is starting to think about holiday travel in October,” says Julia Cosgrove, editor in chief of AFAR Media. 

If you’re ticket-hunting at the 11th hour, Kunz recommends checking airfare late at night. That’s when many airlines launch major fare sales.

Another way to save: Fly on the actual holiday. “Fares are usually cheaper, especially if you pick off-the-beaten-path destinations,” says Cosgrove, who also recommends checking with your preferred airline about blackout dates if you plan to use miles.

A different venue also may provide cost savings. “Research and compare alternative airports near your destinations instead of the major ones in order to find inexpensive flights,” Kunz says.

How to save on holiday lodging

“If the hotel is the deal maker or breaker for your trip and you know where you want to stay, then the best time to book is as early as possible,” says Kowalski, noting that many hotels book up more than a year in advance for the holidays.

Don Shindle, general manager of The Westin Verasa Napa, seconds that notion. “We often see 65 percent of holiday travel booked more than 45 days in advance,” he says. “As Thanksgiving approaches, we experience a jump in traffic to our website and to our reservations line. We advise guests to book at least 90 days in advance over the holidays to ensure availability and the best rate.”

Waiting until the last minute is usually not be a smart strategy with any lodging options. “Reserving a hotel room three weeks out from the holiday season may be too late, as nightly rates may increase by as much as double by then,” Shindle says.

If you’re booking a trip for two and are flexible, then there’s likely some wiggle room. But if your holiday plans involve lots of relatives converging from all over, it’s best to book as early as possible, Cosgrove says.

Consider doing a house swap to save on holiday travel. For example, HomeExchange.com costs $150 a year (less than $13 a month) and results in free lodging. Not only are many of the houses pet-friendly (meaning you’ll save on kennel or dog-sitter fees), but some also offer additional money-saving exchanges such as sports equipment, club access and even cars, saving you rental fees.

Plus, you might even find spectacular homes that exceed traditional hotels. Think solar-powered island homes in Belize or a stunning horse ranch in California.

3 more ways to save on holiday travel

Buy travel insurance. “Travel insurance allows travelers to cancel their trips for any reason, which means that if you book a flight or hotel for the holidays and then find them for a lower price later on, you can cancel your trip and book them at the new price,” Kowalski says. Read your policy carefully for COVID-19 related coverage.

Choose your destination wisely. “Educate yourself about high season and low season for any destination you’re considering,” Cosgrove says. For example, cold-weather destinations without skiing and winter sports activities offer lower rates over the holidays to encourage tourism. Conversely, ski resorts and warm island getaways often are the most expensive during the holiday season.

“My husband and I traveled to Iceland between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Cosgrove says. “Many friends thought we were nuts for going to such a northern destination when it would be so dark, but we loved how empty and tourist-free the country felt at that time of year.”

Shindle says the holidays are a great time to find deals in California wine country when it’s a bit quieter and has lower prices than during summer and fall peak season. “Service at the wineries and off-site activities usually shine during the holidays, with more opportunity to offer personalized service,” he says.

Do a cost comparison. Always use comparative websites—such as CheapOair.com, airfarewatchdog.com and Momondo.com—to compare prices across all travel service providers. “If you find a good rate on a third-party site or app, try calling the hotel [or airline] directly to see if they’ll match it,” Cosgrove says. “It never hurts to ask.”

Likewise, download some of these mobile apps, like the CheapOair mobile app, which offers the same cost comparison services, but with information on baggage fees for each airline, packing list suggestions and currency convertors.

Save on rental cars. “The more cars a rental company has available, the lower the rental price will be, so book cars in advance to get the best deal possible,” advises Kunz. Adds Kowalski: “Most travel service providers, like American Express Travel, have their own negotiated discounts and additional perks such as upgrades, free GPS and free child seats,” so it pays to book with an agent.

Pre-paying for your rental can also help you receive reduced rates in certain destinations, says Kowalski. 

Take advantage of bonus offers. If you’re a member of loyalty programs or have certain credit cards, many offer special promotions that can help you earn more on holiday travel. For example, Delta SkyMiles members can earn miles by riding with Lyft. Loyalty programs and credit cards may also have special discounts on hotels, vacation packages and car rentals if you book through them.

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