The real reason you spend more than you should for winter holiday travel (and five ways to fix this)
You're not delusional. Every January, your bank account is wiped out—and there's a good reason for this. Aside from gifts, you're spending a lot more than you should when traveling over winter holidays (specifically Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years). In fact, chances are you make the same mistakes 50 million other Americans are guilty of, and this is how it all adds up: you buy your ticket at the last minute, you fly peak travel dates, you underestimate airport wait times and you totally forget about Uber surge pricing. You'll also most likely wear that weird Christmas sweater everyone hates, so isn't it time you break from bad habits?
The average American spends about $967 over the holidays, which includes gifts, and you're definitely not going to Larry David your way out of giving gifts. Nobody does. So here's the solution: plan your holiday travel better with these five tips below and you can buy a nicer Christmas sweater and have extra money to burn in January.
Five solid travel tips to save tons of money over the winter holidays:
1. Book your flight YESTERDAY.
Miracles may happen on 34th Street, but they sure as hell don't in airfare. In fact, the current fare you see now will not get any cheaper. There is no last-minute holiday airfares the same way there is definitely a Santa Claus. Winter holidays are the most traveled holidays in America, so why would an airline offer cheap seats to lose profit? They KNOW seats will sell out, so they'll take like the Pixies and gouge away. Even if they do have a "sale," you can bet airfare will still be crazy high. Rocket science lesson: The longer you wait, the more you'll pay. Also, not only will booking early yield you cheaper fares, you get dibs on better seat availability and better routes (instead of those terrible stop-overs in Phoenix, you CAN fly direct if you book now).
2. Avoid peak days.
Even if you manage to find a great deal traveling on a peak day (like November 23, November 27, December 23 or December 31), you’ll be subject to crowded airports, terrible traffic, Uber surcharges and higher chances for delays. Delays are the worst, and you'll shell out money for airport food, airport hotels and things you definitely don't need to buy (airport shops are thriving businesses because people tend to just buy things under the stress and anxiety of flying—and what else are you going to do when your flight is delayed??). Also, on peak days, seat availability is minimal (up to $200 for premium economy). If you have time to spare an extra day or two for the holidays (we know you miss your mama!), just do it. Be flexible, and remember: the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after Thanksgiving are the two most expensive and stressful days to fly out of the entire year!
3. Use your damn air miles already.
Here's something airlines don't ever tell you: the good days of frequent flier programs are basically over. Want proof? Read this excellent story in the New York Times on how mileage programs are worst than ever. Wire magazine is also like "see ya" with the frequent flier miles.
DO NOT BE A HOARDER.
Frequent-flier miles have significantly lost value over the years, and it’s harder to use them. Airlines are offering fewer award seat availability, earning miles is a lot harder (airlines are offering rewards based on dollar spent rather than miles flown), and the only travelers truly benefiting are loyal business travelers. Flights over the holidays are already expensive, so why not cash in with miles? Fly round-trip or use them to upgrade to first class and treat yo' self. The perks are obviously worth it during vacation time (dedicated fast lane at the airport, free checked bag, first to board, etc), which helps holiday travel become less of a hassle. If you've already bought your flight (after reading #1 in this list) you can use your miles for gifts (like merchandise and gift cards) for family and friends. In any case, it’s best to use miles now before they further depreciate. And trust me: they will.
4. Arrive super early
As travelers, we get in the habit of arriving at the airport just in time for our flights. Make an exception over the holidays and allow at least two hours for domestic travel. Traffic can get congested over the holidays (ahem, La Guardia), especially with thousands of vacationers going to the same airport, and you'll avoid Uber surge pricing. Remember, security lines will be longer over the holidays, which could prevent you from making your flight (change fees are the worst). If you're still like "I got this," imagine what the airport was like on your last holiday vacation (Memorial Day, Fourth of July, etc). Now double that for the upcoming holidays. Ooh, I get chills. If you’re driving to a destination, count on highway traffic, packed gas stations, overcrowded roadside restaurants and more delays that can cause snags. According to AAA, 43 million people hit the highway for travel, so the earlier you leave, the better off you are getting to your destination in a timely manner, minimizing stress, which Smithsonian definitely likes to avoid. Even if you're TSA Pre-Check or Clear, you don't want to take any chances.
5. Book a vacation rental
If you're one of those lucky families that stay in posh hotels over the holidays, think about trading it in for a vacation rental, like Luxury Retreats or AirBnB. Vacation rentals are equipped with luxe amenities (with full kitchens so you can still cook that turkey or pierogis), have multiple rooms, are easy to get to and are in perfectly located tropical or mountain destinations. They’re also bang for your buck when you have a bigger family. I've seen 8-bedroom, beachfront private villas in Puerto Vallarta go for $2,000 a night while a fancy hotel down the street is the same price for only three rooms.
(**This is the updated version of a story I originally wrote for Luxury Retreats (stress-free holiday hacks)).