20 Holiday Travel Secrets from Industry Insiders
As October winds down, the holiday on your mind is probably Halloween.
But unless you switch gears fast, you might be left holding the bag — and I don’t mean a bag of trick-or-treat candy.
So far, travel booking sites are seeing not only higher demand for flights for the upcoming holiday season, but also a jump in fares.
“Our numbers are showing that it is going to be even busier than last year,” says Mark Drusch, Chief Supplier Relations Officer for CheapoAir. “We’re seeing high double-digit increases of bookings for these periods, and I expect the airlines will report record traffic for the Thanksgiving period this year.”
Average domestic Thanksgiving fares on Kayak, another popular flight search site, are up 13% from 2012, from $415 to $470, and its Christmas and New Year’s Eve fares are also up 10% and 12%, respectively. And popular routes? They’re even higher. “Looking at five routes from New York to Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, and a couple other popular destinations, the average fare increase for this year is up 16%,” says Warren Chang, vice president and general manager of Fly.com.
Already feel sweat on your brow? Don’t worry — as long as you act fast and use these insider tips, here’s how you can keep your holiday travel from draining your bank account and holiday cheer.
1. Book now.
Last year, Kayak saw that after mid-October, fares increased up to 17% for Thanksgiving, 51% for Christmas and 25% for New Year’s Eve.
“If you find a fare you want, book it right then. Don’t wait for deals — they don’t happen anymore,” says Drusch. A study by FareCompare found that the best time to book was Tuesday at 3pm, because new sales are announced Monday and other airlines normally match by Tuesday afternoon.
“Without a doubt, matrix.itasoftware.com has the most robust, flexible travel search on the web (and it powers Kayak, Hipmunk, etc). You can even search prices for up to 30 consecutive departure dates,” says Dan Lack, the travel guru for Popexpert. (Just select “see calendar of lowest fares” when doing your search.)
Sign up for Pintrips, which allows you to bookmark flights from various booking sites and even automatically updates them when fares change — er, rise.
2. Be as flexible as possible with your dates.
Chang says that though Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Saturdays typically have the least expensive flights, “for holiday travel, cheaper fares can be found on actual holidays — instead of the day before or day after.”
Flying on an off-day helps too, he says: New York to Miami for the Wednesday before to the Sunday after Thanksgiving costs $664 and has a stopover. But, returning a day later, on Monday, nets a nonstop flight for $483 fare, saving you 25% and time. Plus, the airport won’t be as crowded. And if you return Tuesday? He found a fare for $340 — almost 50% cheaper.
If you want to quickly see how much flying on various days will cost, use the calendar function on Fly.com.
Fortunately, at least for Christmas and New Year’s, being more flexible will be easier this year. “The good news about this year’s holiday season is that it is longer than usual with both Christmas and New Year’s falling on Wednesdays,” says Chris McGinnis, travel blogger for Best Western’s blog YouMustBeTrippin.com. “The full season will be over two weeks long, which means more wiggle room for travelers — compared to a season when Christmas and New Year’s both fall on, say, Sunday.”
3. Check multiple airports, two one-ways, and one-way awards.
If you’re flying to Washington, D.C., look at both nearby airports as well as Baltimore, says Drusch. “But know where you’re ultimately going. If you’re going to New York and your family is in New Jersey, don’t book Islip [on Long Island]. Know whether that alternative airport takes a longer drive.”
If you’re still not finding fares you like, try searching for two one-ways; Kayak and Skyscanner.com both compile “hacker fares” that put together one-ways on different airlines.
Lack says, “Sometimes roundtrip tickets can have a high price tag during the holidays because one of the days you want to fly is uber expensive, while the other might be much less expensive. See if you can book a one-way award ticket for the super-expensive leg and then pay for the cheap one.” (Note: you can’t book one-way award tickets on Delta or US Airways.)
4. Use credit card points.
Because airlines usually black out holiday travel dates for cashing in frequent flyer miles, “Use credit card points that are good on any flight, any time, on any airline like Arrival Miles [with this Barclays card] Capital One miles [with this credit card], and FlexPoints [with this U.S. Bank card]. In the case of a FlexPerks award, you even get a $25 credit for baggage, food, or lounge access on the day of travel,” says Scott Grimmer, founder of MileValue.com.
5. When calculating price, include baggage fees.
The most notorious airline when it comes to baggage fees is Spirit, which charges $50 per carry-on (though personal items go free). The most generous is Southwest, which allows you to check two bags free. For everything in between, use Airfarewatchdog’s handy chart of all fees on all airlines.
6. Buy directly from the airlines.
Comparison shop using metasearch sites such as Fly, Kayak, matrix.itaSoftware, but book your tickets directly from the airline. “If your airfare drops after you book your ticket, most airlines will refund the difference, minus a rebooking fee, in the form of a voucher,” says Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, a family travel expert and managing editor of family travel site MiniTime. “There are two conditions: You have to ask for it, and you must have bought your ticket directly from the airline.” Yapta will track your fare for you and alert you if it drops more than the cost of the rebooking fee. Since most rebooking fees are about $75, she says this works only for those whose fares drop more than that amount, though Yapta estimates that about 12% of passengers qualify for refunds, and the average savings is $130.
7. Choose your flight time based on these factors:
If you have a layover or live in a hub: take an early morning flight. It is much less likely to be delayed, so those with a layover won’t miss their connecting flights, and if you live in a hub, such as Charlotte, Phoenix, Chicago or Dallas, then those flights will have more availability, since the passengers that feed those planes won’t have arrived.
If you’re flying on the holiday itself: afternoon flights will be even cheaper than morning flights.
If you don’t like crowds: Shoot for the afternoon, when there are fewer flights and airports are a bit less busy. But during the winter, be prepared for a potential delay, as problems early on push later flights back.
If you have a layover: give yourself more than usual wiggle room in your layover time, in case bad weather causes delays. For instance, instead of one hour, give yourself two.
Enduring The Airport
Booking your flights is difficult enough, but dealing with the airport is yet another challenge. Here’s how to keep it from ruining your trip.
8. Pack lightly, roll your clothing, and don’t wrap your gifts.
Check the weather before you pack, and bring the fewest items of clothing that will yield the greatest number of outfits. Chang suggests you wear your bulkiest items, and roll the clothing you do pack, rather than folding it, to save space. He makes sure to fill any empty cavity — for instance, pack your socks inside your shoes, which will also help your footwear keep its shape.
“Certainly at Christmas, you have presents,” says Liz Dahl, founder & President of Boomer Travel Patrol. “Remember not to wrap them if you are traveling with them, because security will make you unwrap the gifts. Send them in advance by mail, UPS or FedEx. I shop at stores that will gift wrap and send the packages out for me — great time saver as well.”
Also, here’s a quick reminder of the carry-on rules: liquids, aerosols and gels must be in 3.4 ounce (100ml) or less bottles, and placed in one quart-sized, clear, zip-top bag; one bag per passenger. Medications, baby formula and food, and breast milk exceeding three ounces are allowed, but must be declared for inspection. “It never hurts to have a doctor’s note for special diets and medicine,” says John Walton, Director of Data at Routehappy.
9. Bring extra chargers and/or an external battery or solar charger.
Nothing’s a bigger drag than having your electronics die just when you need them to check in or remember your aunt’s address. While having your charger helps, having an external battery or solar charger can be even more useful if you can’t find a plug.
“Our season’s best gift idea for the traveler who can’t always get on a flight that has plugs: an external battery to recharge your electronics. Most cellphones need about 2000 mAh of charge and iPad-sized tablets about 10,000 mAh. Look for a battery with enough capacity for your needs,” says Walton of Routehappy, which can help you find flights with plugs.
10. Forgo the (costly) airplane food.
If you have a longer flight, bring your own food. Cheryl Forberg, R.D., in-house nutritionist for Omni Hotels & Resorts, says, “Make a sandwich on whole grain bread with lots of veggies and use avocado instead of mayo for a creamy, non-spoiling spread that’s lower in calories. Salads with dressings that can survive at room temperature are another great filling choice. For snacks pack low-fat string cheese, trail mix with soy nuts, and grass-fed beef jerky.” But, she adds, “Leave the yogurt at home – TSA doesn’t allow it through security.”
11. Look into signing up for Global Entry.
Those enrolled in this U.S. Customs and Border Protection program can skip customs and immigration — and even filling out those blue forms — on international flights. “It’s $100 for five years, and if you have the Amex platinum card or are platinum or above on United, they’ll reimburse you the $100,” says Chang. Users with global entry are more likely to qualify for TSA Precheck, which allows you to bypass the normal security lines, keep your shoes on and your laptop in your bag. (Soon, you will also be able to apply directly for TSA Precheck for a fee of $85.)
12. Plan your security routine.
“I never wear shoes with laces. I never wear belts,” says Drusch. “I always put my cellphone in my briefcase or in my wife’s bag so I don’t leave it in the little round container.” (New York Times tech columnist David Pogue did just recently leave his cell phone at security, almost causing him to miss his flight.) Drusch also asks whether you really need your laptop for the holidays or if a tablet, which you don’t have to remove from your bag at security, will do. He also packs an extra day’s worth of clothing in his carry-on in case checked luggage gets lost. And don’t forget that kids under 12 don’t need to remove their shoes.
Chang has a routine for security that saves him time: first shoes, then laptop, then laptop bag, then carryon. “Once you go through security, while they’re screening the other items, you can put on your shoes, then pick up your laptop, then your laptop bag comes out, and you can put in your laptop, and then your carryon comes out and you’re ready to go.”
13. If you need to check bags, consider your airline’s credit card.
Although it’s best to carry on your luggage to keep it from getting lost, if you must check a bag, you can avoid the fee if you have the airline’s credit card, especially for bigger airlines like Delta and United. “If you already have one of their cards, and don’t have that service, and you know you’re going to be checking one bag for each of your four family members in each direction, those four bags could cost you $280,” says Drusch. “If you upgrade your card for a $90 fee, you made your money back.”
14. If your flight is delayed …
“In case of a weather delay, call the airline or go to a lounge to be rebooked by a less harried agent than the customer service agent at the airport,” Grimmer says.
Carolyn Paddock, the founder and CEO of In-Flight Insider, recommends having a credit card with concierge benefits — like the Amex Platinum card. “If I book my tickets through their travel department, then if something happens and there’s a long help line at the airport, I can call the concierge and they’re already working on it,” she says.
If you have kids in tow, Walton suggests finding another place to wait. “The gate is not always the best option. Sometimes a family restaurant or kids’ play area is en route. Google for ‘play area’ with your airport’s name and discover a hidden gem, like the airport-themed play area at Philadelphia.”
15. If you’re traveling with children …
“No one wants to sit in the last row, but I actually prefer the last row when traveling with the kiddos,” says Walton. “We’re close to the bathroom, so we are likely to avoid accidents. Flight attendants can be flagged down as they pass by as well. Plus, the constant line of people coming and going will keep the kids entertained. Finally, if one of more of the kids does burst into hysterics, you’re only bothering a few rows in front of you, instead of in front of you and behind you.”
While most travelers go home for the holidays, many families also do take the opportunity to fit in some travel, especially that week between Christmas and New Year’s. Here are some tips if you’re traveling anywhere but home.
16. Go abroad, but make sure you passport has at least six months on it.
“Consider going to locations that are not traditionally known for holiday travel but are beautifully dressed up for the holiday,” says Alexis Romer, Vice President, Travel Industry, for The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. “Gateway European cities are great for this. Think London, Paris, Milan, Florence, Berlin, Vienna, Barcelona. There is usually availability and it can be a special way to see a city.”
Grimmer of MileValue agrees, adding, “Certain holiday destinations, especially where Christianity is uncommon have very cheap fares over Christmas.”
“Some airlines won’t let you travel if you have under six months left on your passport,” says Paddock. “There’s a company I always work with that gets a lot of frantic calls from the airport from travelers who have been denied boarding because their passport is too close to its expiration date.”
17. Book with an agent in the country you’re visiting.
Especially if you’re reserving holiday travel now, you will find hotels have “no availability” — but that’s just for the blocks of rooms it is selling directly to the public. “Larger agencies with longstanding partnerships with particular hotels are able to negotiate great Christmas blocks in advance and often have space when hotels are ‘totally full,’” says Rob Harper, director of business travel at Namu Travel, which creates customized itineraries in Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua.
If you run into problems on your trip, you can get them more easily resolved with an agency based there.
To find the agencies that deal with your destination, just do a web search for “holiday travel to Paris” or “Costa Rica vacation.” If you would rather not deal with an agency, get on the hotel’s waiting list, because if that wholesaler doesn’t sell all its rooms, those unreserved spots may go back to the resort before Thanksgiving, in what is called “The November Frenzy.”
18. Use Priceline’s Name Your Own Price for rental cars and hotels.
“I always use them for rental cars because I don’t care which rental car company I book from,” says Lack. “The best strategy is to book your rental car [directly on the company’s site], then starting three or four days before your travel, [on Priceline], name a price that’s 50% less than the published rate. If they don’t accept it, raise your bid 24 hours later by $10, and to the same for each subsequent day until you pick up the car. Remember, when you do Priceline’s Name Your Own Price, they charge you immediately if they accept your bid, and it’s non-refundable. You only get one bid every 24 hours.”
19. Book a domestic hotel, or go with alternative lodging.
Domestic hotels often cost less during the holidays. In San Diego, Boston and Washington, D.C., it’s the cheapest time of year to book a room, says Jeremy Murphy, CEO and co-founder of TheSuitest.com. And also check out alternate, especially if you’re going abroad. Consider renting a home or villa, or do a home swap with HomeExchange or HomeSwap. Lodging on Airbnb will also usually be cheaper than a hotel, and or, if you’re family is up for meeting new people over the holidays, look into the free service of Couchsurfing, where you stay with a host in your destination.
20. If you’ve booked a cruise …
“Fly in a day before the cruise,” says Brian Murphy of Expedia CruiseShipCenters, so if bad weather sets you back, you don’t miss the whole trip. Also, throw a swimsuit into your carryon, just in case your luggage gets left behind. “Who wants to wait for the luggage to be delivered when a pool or beach are available?”