How to Plan a Hassle-Free Holiday Vacation

Plan a low-stress holiday trip with these tips for flight and train reservations, road trips, keeping kids happy and more.

How To Plan a Hassle-Free Holiday Vacation - Mother and Daughter at the Airport

by NEA Member Benefits

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” or so the song goes. But everyone who travels knows that winter weather, heavy traffic and flight delays can cause additional stress during the holiday season. Keep things calm by planning ahead and using a travel checklist.

Conquer seasonal travel-related hassles using our tips and strategies. Make your list, check it twice, and get ready to bring cheer and smiles while saving time and money as we head into the holiday season.

Plane and train tips

  • Research and book flights early. Winter break is one of the year’s busiest periods for air travel, so book your holiday airfare between September through November 25 to avoid elevated fares. Although peak ticket buying for Thanksgiving is August and the first half of September, you might still be able to find some great rates. Be sure to check out NEA Travel for discounted plane tickets as well. You’ll receive $100 in NEA Travel Dollars when you complete your flight through NEA Travel.
  • Travel early or late. Flying early in the morning or late in the day could mean lower rates and a higher likelihood of departing and arriving on time. And flying early allows you plenty of time for delays and cancellations.
  • Score holiday savings. Check alternate airports, connecting flights rather than a nonstop, and flying on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day to help save you money. Avoid flying the Sunday after a holiday if you can because tickets on those high-demand days are usually the most expensive.
  • Track your flight. Download your airline’s app but also look for apps such as FlightAware that track flight status and delays. You can also visit the airport website's directly to see arrivals and departures information.
  • Reserve airport parking. Airport parking lots fill up fast during the holidays. Check out off-airport parking options such as The Parking Spot, where you can reserve a parking place ahead of time and take the lot's shuttle to the airport. You can find The Parking Spot, as well as Airport Parking Reservations, on NEA Discount Marketplace.
  • Book holiday trains early. Thanksgiving is the busiest time for train travel, and some trains do sell out. In general, prices increase substantially closer to the travel date at any time of year. If you’re planning a train ride on Amtrak, for example, it’s recommended you buy tickets as soon as they are available (11 months before scheduled departure). Amtrak’s booking tool is handy; check the site’s Deals & Promotions section. 
  • Study car rentals. Book about six months to no less than six weeks ahead to avoid a limited choice of vehicles during the holidays. To save money, use your NEA member discount through NEA Travel, or check general travel sites as well as car-rental agencies. You can even call to ask about discounts. The number of days of your rental counts toward your costs, too: It may be cheaper to pay for a weekly rate rather than to rent a vehicle for only a few days, and mid-week rates are often cheaper than weekend rates.

Road trip strategies

  • Think safety first. Get your car checked (brakes, tires, oil, etc.) before you head out. Be sure to pack an emergency kit that includes a flashlight, blanket, water bottles and jumper cables.
  • Plan your route, but be flexible. Study driving options before you hit the road, and use an app such as Waze for real-time updates from other drivers to avoid traffic tie-ups.
  • Pack your trunk. Plan ahead for how you will transport holiday gifts and any winter sports gear.
  • Gas up. Start with a full tank to avoid lines and higher prices on the highway. GasBuddy is a valuable app that helps you find cheaper gas prices on the road.
  • Make smart stops. Save time and money on mid-travel stops by downloading iExit interstate highway guide to locate gas stations (with prices); it also includes restaurants (with ratings) and ATMs.
  • Book city parking. An app such as SpotHero saves time and money on spaces in city lots. Parking on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas? Call the lot even if you have a reservation to be sure it’s actually open.

Keeping the kids happy

  • Get kids involved. It’s always best to talk with your kids about your travel plans and what to expect well in advance. First-time fliers will benefit from a step-by-step rundown. Ask for kids’ vacation activity suggestions, and keep a countdown to the big day.
  • Take favorite stuff. A few toys and snacks are essential, and don’t forget the video game or tablet to keep older kids occupied, and remember to take earbuds and headphones. Books, coloring and activity books, and audiobooks make great travel companions, too. If you’re traveling with an infant, be sure to bring pacifiers and a fully loaded diaper bag with a change of clothes. If you have a kid with motion sickness, pack Dramamine and sickness bags.
  • Consider childproofing. If you have small children, check with your hosts about specific concerns, or speak with your hotel. Take along any childproofing items (outlet covers, for example) as needed.

Plan ahead for pets

  • Check your hotel or vacation rental’s rules. If you plan on bringing Fido along, check your accommodation’s pet rules carefully before booking, and be sure to check for extra fees.
  • Book pet sitters early. Holidays are the hardest time to book pet sitters since they often are traveling as well. Start asking around a few months before a holiday to ensure you can book a pet sitter. Be prepared for higher rates as well.

Gift guide for travelers

  • Keep gifts unwrapped. TSA rules mean gifts go through security screening, so plan to wrap items after you arrive at your destination. It’s a good idea even if gifts are in your checked luggage.
  • Consider shipping gifts. The holidays challenge the lightest packers, so check luggage weight restrictions. An extra checked bag may cost you $35 or $40; shipping can be more convenient.
  • Bring an extra bag. An easily foldable bag may be useful for gifts you want to carry home.

Ready, set, go: Advice for your travel day

  • Check in. Confirm your flight’s status; you can check in online up to 24 hours before you fly. Print your boarding pass, save it on your phone or print it from a kiosk at the airport when you arrive.
  • Try to only take carry ons. Avoid baggage fees and the possibility of lost luggage by only taking carry-on luggage. Plus, you won’t have to waste time waiting for your bags on the other end. Of course, this only works for shorter trips and light packers, but it’s worth trying.
  • Keep travel documents handy. Be sure any boarding passes, identification and other material are in a convenient place.
  • Leave early. Whether you’re driving or taking a plane or train, allowing plenty of extra time will keep everyone less stressed. If you’re parking at the airport or returning a rental car on the way home, factor in time for that.
  • Charge your devices. Be sure your phone is fully charged, and keep chargers handy during travel.

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