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.
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’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.
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, the week of September 4 is the best time to book Thanksgiving travel, and the week of October 22 is the best time to book Christmas travel.
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 it’s the lowest fare you’re looking for, AirFastTickets.com recommends booking holiday flights 55 days prior to departure.
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 may 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 you’re 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 $9.99 per 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 far 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.
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 more price-sensitive 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 airlines. “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.
As an NEA member, you can save on travel with NEA Vacations, which gives you access to prices not available elsewhere on hotels, airfare, cruises and even vacation packages. And as an added bonus, you can earn Travel Dollars that can be applied to future travel.
Don’t forget to check NEA Click & Save, where you can find the best available rates by searching the entire inventory of Priceline, Expedia and Orbitz.
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.
And NEA Member Benefits partners with five outstanding rental car companies that offer great deals to NEA members.
Take advantage of bonus offers. If you’re a member of loyalty programs, many offer special promotions that can help you earn more on holiday travel. For example, Starwood Preferred Guest members can earn Starpoints by riding with Uber. Likewise, if you book holiday flights on Delta, SPG Platinum and Gold members earn extra Starpoints, plus, SPG Platinum members will enjoy elite benefits, such as Priority Check-in, Priority Boarding, Unlimited Complimentary Upgrades and first checked bag free. And if you shop through NEA Click & Save and have accumulated WOWPoints, you can use these points to book all or part of your trip.
Updated September 2017
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