Now that your turkey coma has worn off, it’s time to gather ’round the fire (or the laptop) and start planning for the Christmas/New Year’s period, which you can bet is going to be one of the busiest in recent memory. How do we know this? Because the holiday travel season usually mimics the peak summer travel season, which this year was very busy (and very expensive), so travelers should expect the same for the upcoming holiday season.
So, with Thanksgiving travel plans already in motion, have you considered getting out and about for Christmas, Hanukkah or New Year’s yet?
Here’s some advice to help you navigate the roads and skies like a holiday travel pro:
When’s the best time to buy airline tickets for Christmas? Sorry, but due to high demand, there simply are not any real airfare “deals” on the peak days around Christmas and New Year’s this year. Travelers who want the most convenient flights on their preferred airlines should book as soon as possible to get seats on those flights – otherwise they will likely be stuck paying the same high price for what I call “dog flights” — those less desirable flights that depart super early or late Or they’ll have to sit in those dreaded middle seats, or make several stops en route to their destinations.
Should I drive or fly this year? I always stick to the five hour rule: If you can drive to your destination in five hours or less, it’s likely smarter to hit the road instead of the skies during the holidays. This is especially true for families traveling together. Good news this year is that gasoline prices are at their lowest in many years—about $2 per gallon on average in the U.S. this week, down almost a dollar from this time last year. One of the best new smartphone apps for driving trips is Waze, a GPS-based mapping tool that uses information provided by other drivers to help you avoid traffic, road hazards – and speed traps!
Don’t miss: Big Airfare Sale- Europe, Asia, India, Africa
What are the best days for traveling this year? Both Christmas and New Year’s fall on Fridays this year, which means the peak holiday season is going to be nice and spread out. It will start on Friday, December 18 and run through Sunday January 3. A long holiday season means more wiggle room for travelers (compared to a season when Christmas and New Year’s both fall on say, Sunday, which makes for a much more compact, crowded and expensive season). Smart travelers will depart on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and return on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day to avoid the biggest crowds and snag the lowest fares. Beware of the biggest holiday crowds at airports on the weekend before Christmas (Dec 18, 19, 20) and after New Year’s (Jan 1, 2, 3).
Is now a good time to redeem points or miles for trips? It’s nearly impossible to use airline frequent flyer awards during the blacked out, heavily restricted peak holiday season. On the other hand, demand for hotels declines during holidays, which means that it’s a lot easier to find low rates or to redeem those hard-earned loyalty points. The holidays are an excellent time to redeem points earned with credit card programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards or Amex Membership Rewards! That’s because they don’t impose blackout dates– if there’s a seat available on a flight, you get it.
Are there any alternatives or hidden secrets to getting good deals this year? If you have the flexibility to travel during the slowest times of year, the so called “dead weeks” of early December and early January, you can save 50-70 percent on airfare or hotels. For example, airfares to Europe can be remarkably inexpensive during winter months- and could be even lower this year as demand for European travel declines due to the terror attacks in Paris. It’s also a good idea to check out airline or hotel social media streams on sites like Twitter or Facebook to look for short term, last minute sales– and of course keep an eye on TravelSkills for deals like we posted yesterday.
What about airline baggage fees? If possible, avoid checking bags during the holidays; the risk of your bag getting lost and ruining your trip is just too high. Try to learn to live out of a carry-on. If you have too much for a carry on, ship your bags ahead of time, but do so at the “ground” rate at UPS, FedEx or the Postal Service. Shipping a 25 lb. bag via next-day or two-day express is just too expensive– and significantly more than the airline fee for checking it.
What’s a good way to avoid holiday travel stress? Always try to book nonstop flights, because you double your chances of a delay or cancellation with a one-stop flight, even though you might save a few bucks. Another stress-busting move: Consider staying over in a hotel when visiting families during the holidays. Rates at new hotels in or near suburban office parks hit annual lows during holidays (due to the lack of business travelers), and facilities are usually new and nice. Plus, there are plenty of good promotions at this time of year, such as Best Western’s 10% off + 500 points deal for stays through Feb 7. Having your own space at a hotel is a big relief for both the traveler and the host during the stressful holidays.
NOTE: Be sure to click here to see all recent TravelSkills posts about: 5 ways to save using Uber/Lyft + New overseas plan from Verizon + Trans-Pac fare war?