Travel Home for the Holidays on the Cheap

by Kevin on December 1, 2010

I’m very thankful we live close enough to our families that visiting is only about half of a day’s worth of driving. Of course I would be more thankful if we were only an hour’s drive away, but we’ll get there eventually.

For the holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas we pick a location to host certain holidays. It might be Thanksgiving at our house and Christmas back home. It could be flipped around the other way. But at the end of the day we’re usually packing up a car for a few days and driving somewhere.

We’re not alone. How many people in your office or school travel in some shape, form, or fashion over the traditional holiday season? I bet it’s a lot, and I would bet that not all of them are driving. When the 24/7 news channels are reporting on lost luggage and lines at airports you know it’s a serious travel season.

Whether it is packed roads or packed runways holiday travel can be expensive. Plane tickets, gas costs, and hotel stays all raise the cost of celebrating a certain special season.

Planning ahead can save a lot of hassle, headache, and dollars. Here’s a few ways to save during this busy travel season.

Plan Your Trip in Advance

The more advance notice you give yourself on your trip plans, the better. You’ll be able to shop fares, find vacancies, and save dollars by being prepared well in advance. The easiest way to part with a lot of money all at once is to walk up to the airline or hotel desk and ask for a seat or room for that day. Everyone else has beaten you to the punch. They’ve had their reservations for weeks or months!

I’m no flight guru, and I know there are more advanced tips on saving money on flights. There’s a sweet spot when it comes to finding the best fares, but I don’t fly enough to be able tell you reliably what to expect.

Instead I rely on websites like AirfareWatchdog and Farecast (now owned by Microsoft/Bing.com) to track fare costs. With AirfareWatchdog you can set up e-mail alerts so you’ll be alerted whenever a low price is available for your selected flight. Farecast gives an indication on whether the price you are being displayed is likely to increase, stay the same, or decrease.

Waiting is always risky. If you wait for a better price in the future the flight might sell out during the holidays. Either way knowing in advance what your plans are will help you best prepare to get the flights and hotels that you need at a price you’re comfortable with.

Travel Flexibility is Money Saved

The more flexible your holiday plans the more money you can save. Rigid plans don’t give you any options. You pay the price you find or you don’t travel. Not much room there.

If you don’t have to be home on a specific date to go to a holiday concert with your family and could instead take the flight the next day you can cash.

Building in flexibility can be difficult especially if there are multiple groups of travelers trying to converge at one location on a specific date. Again, rigid plans make for rigid costs… take it or leave it.

Another note about flexibility: you can earn some nice rewards by allowing yourself to be bumped from a flight. If the airline needs a seat to be opened up put on your negotiating face, have them put you up in a nice hotel for the night, get a travel voucher for a free flight in the future, and come back the next day to go home. Flexibility wins.

Travel on Non-Traditional Travel Days

Traveling on the “busiest travel day(s) of the year” is bound to hurt your checking account. I wanted to verify the validity of that thought so I did some basic searching through travel search engine Kayak.

I looked for flights from the main airports in Dallas, TX to Atlanta, GA for dates running from Friday, December 17th to January 1st.

Here are the results:

Flight DateCheapest Fare
Friday, December 17th$120
Saturday, December 18th$120
Sunday, December 19th$120
Monday, December 20th$105
Tuesday, December 21st$120
Wednesday, December 22nd$153
Thursday, December 23rd$153
Friday, December 24th$120
Saturday, December 25th$120
Sunday, December 26th$153
Monday, December 27th$120
Tuesday, December 28th$120
Wednesday, December 29th$104
Thursday, December 30th$153
Friday, December 31st$120
Saturday, January 1st$120

I thought this was really interesting. So let’s say you planned to travel home on Thursday the 23rd, stay for a couple of days, and fly back on the 26th. You’ve hit the most expensive fare available during this time period at $153. Moving your travel date forward two days or back one day gets you into a $120 flight. You’ve instantly saved $33. If you could move your flight up one more day to the 20th your savings increases to $48.

This hits home the point that flexibility will save you money. If you can convince your family to celebrate Christmas a few days earlier or later than normal you can rack up some savings. You would need to do an analysis of round trip flights with varying dates to see the full picture, but I think this example makes the point.

Plan for Weather

Planning for weather may not save you a ton of money, but not planning for weather can cost you a lot. You never know what the weather’s going to be like in December (unless you live in Key West!). It might be perfectly fine to fly one day and ice storms that shut down 20% of the airports in the United States.

I wrote about this earlier this year when the volcano in Iceland erupted. Unprepared travelers were going broke trying to change travel plans.

What if your flight is canceled? What if the airline doesn’t offer to put you up in a hotel, or can’t because they’re all booked?

Have a plan ready. Reach out to friends that live in the area and see if you could crash at their place if you had no other options. Don’t spend your last dollar buying a plane ticket home if you can’t afford to camp out at an airport for 24 hours.

Plan ahead and be flexible and you’ll save money and frustration in the future.

For the more seasoned travelers: what other tips do you have? Leave a comment and we’ll all learn from you.

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