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Top Hacks to Save Money on Holiday Travel

By Jackie Lam
November 12, 2017

‘Tis the season—to go broke. If the stress and inherent hustle-bustle of traveling during the holidays weren’t enough to pull your hair out, factor in the costs. Not-so-fun fact: Americans spent an average of $1,003 on holiday-related costs in 2016. Yikes.

Whether you’re traveling to visit family or to enjoy an end-of-year getaway, here are our tips to avoid getting sucker-punched with holiday debt hangover (hey, it happens to the best of us). Take a look at our top holiday traveling hacks:

Book early

Just like there are last-minute gift shoppers, there are last-minute travel bookers, says Ben Luthi, travel enthusiast and money writer for Student Loan Hero. As the demand increases for holiday travel, so will the prices. “Of course, booking early won’t mean you’ll get screaming deals,” says Luthi. “Holiday travel is usually more expensive than average regardless of when you book.” But the sooner you do it, the less of a premium you’ll have to pay.

Be flexible

Flexibility is key when it comes to snagging the best travel deals. For example, if you’re flying for the holidays, be willing to potentially fly in early and stay a bit longer to miss the rush, says Luthi. Here’s another tip: the least busy travel days are often Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, according to personal finance and travel writer Robyn Parets. In addition, you’ll often find a bargain airfare if you’re willing to travel on a Tuesday or Wednesday rather than on other days during the week. These two days, along with New Year’s Eve, tend to be the lowest priced days to travel during the holiday season, says Parets.    

Road trip it

If you can spare the time and your destination isn’t too far away, consider driving, taking a bus, or traveling by train – instead of flying, suggests Luthi. For example, Luthi and his wife are driving from Utah to Portland for a two-fold purpose this holiday season: to attend his sister-in-law’s wedding and to spend time with the family over New Year’s. While Luthi originally booked a flight, it was ridiculously expensive, so he canceled it and plans to drive instead.

Hold off on holiday shopping

Instead of hauling gifts on a flight or shipping them, wait to buy gifts when you reach your destination, suggests Jessica Garbarino of Every Single Dollar. “It makes your travel less stressful and saves money,” says Garbarino.

Here’s a solid reason why traveling with wrapped gifts can cause anxiety and cost you money: if a TSA agent decides to inspect your bags, he may decide to unwrap your presents to see the contents. This will not only hold you up and stress you out, but you’ll spend money on more wrapping paper to re-wrap those gifts when you arrive at your destination, says Parets.

Another tip: avoid traveling with gifts altogether and buy your present online. This way you can take advantage of free shipping deals or have them directly shipped to your destination via Amazon Prime.

Consider flying out of another airport

If you find flights are outrageously priced from your home airport, try considering alternatives, suggests Holly Johnson, personal finance and travel writer at Club Thrifty. For instance, while the Johnsons live in Indianapolis, they frequently drive to Chicago for better airfare deals. It’s occasionally $300 to $400 less per person per flight, which nets a grand total savings of up to $1,600 for the family of four. Johnson says the savings make up for the three-hour drive to the airport.

Use your reward points and travel on a budget airline

If you’ve racked up a significant number of reward points on a credit card, consider redeeming them for airline travel, suggests Ruby Escalona of A Journey We Love. Some travel credit cards also let you redeem points for buses and trains too. Just make sure that, if your credit card comes with an annual fee, you gain enough in travel perks to offset that cost.

Get a co-branded airline credit card

When traveling during the holidays, airplanes are more packed than usual, which makes it more challenging to find overhead bin space. To save on checked luggage fees, consider carrying the co-branded credit card of your preferred airline, says Lee Huffman, a travel blogger at Bald Thoughts.

This helps in two ways, says Huffman. First: most airlines don’t charge you to check bags when you book a flight on its credit card. Second: if you prefer to travel with a carry-on-bag, these cards often offer priority boarding. This means you’ll enjoy earlier access to overhead bin space.

Search for online deals for food and fun

Want to have fun on a dime when you arrive at your travel destination? Scour deal sites to find deals on food and entertainment using apps like Groupon and Goldstar before you leave home, suggests Huffman. You should also always carry your membership cards like AAA and AARP to secure discounts at participating locations. In addition, sometimes public transit may offer discounts to nearby attractions and restaurants. For instance, in Los Angeles, you can score “destination discounts” with a Metro transit card.

Seek gourmet food halls

To save on food when traveling, be on the hunt for gourmet food halls, suggests Amy Rutherford of Go With Less. “Think mall food court with ambiance and inexpensive, delicious options,” says Rutherford.” They’re popping up everywhere!” Some gourmet food halls include the Time Out Market in Lisbon, Chelsea Market in New York City, Grand Central Market in Los Angeles, and Mercado Roma in Mexico City.

Ready, set, go

While holiday travel can get expensive, keeping these travel hacks in mind can help you save big bucks while avoiding serious debt hangover in the new year. Your pocketbook and budget for 2018 will thank you.

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