Planning to visit Grandma's for Thanksgiving or spend Christmas in Paris? Traveling over the holidays can be notoriously busy, expensive and stressful, but the news isn't all bad. There are still deals to be found, provided you shop carefully and plan ahead. Check out 10 tips for holiday travel and find some joy this holiday season.
AVOID PEAK TRAVEL DAYS
At Thanksgiving, Wednesday is the critical outbound "avoid" day as a rule. Traveling on Thanksgiving day proper is often a breeze and more affordable; there are often cut-rate airfare deals on Thanksgiving day.
On the return, Friday morning isn't bad at all, with each successive day getting a little busier, more difficult and more expensive through Sunday evening. The bottom line: If you are looking for a deal, you won't find one on the peak travel days. Travel off-peak whenever possible.
Christmas and New Year's Day fall on Saturdays this year, which means that the same advice for Thanksgiving will apply to both of these holidays -- fly on the holiday itself if possible, and avoid Sunday evening at the end of the long weekend.
Haven't booked your holiday travel yet? It's time to stop waiting and start booking. Fares are only rising as Thanksgiving approaches, so those who hold out in hopes of a late-breaking sale are likely to get left out in the cold or pay a very steep price for their procrastination. The same goes for the Christmas holiday; book sooner rather than later, particularly if you require very specific travel dates or times. With the current state of the airline industry, it is never too early to book your holiday travel flights.
While many of the best deals are probably already gone, keep an eye on TRAVELZOO last-minute bargains. Be prepared to be flexible with dates and flight times.
Whether you're using booking sites like Travelocity, bid or auction sites such as Priceline, aggregator sites, comparison shopping has never been easier than it is right now. During peak travel season, casting the net as wide as possible will help you understand all of your options.
For many travelers, price isn't the only or even the most important factor, especially during the holidays. Thoughtful, deliberate use of the "search adjacent days or airports" features found on many Web sites may also surrender greatly improved fares and travel times.
Know your airports.
Checking alternate airports is a pretty standard tactic, but at this time of year it can really make a difference. At no time can the alternate airport gambit pay off better than during the holiday crush. You can score on almost every front -- parking, rental cars, traffic to and from, nearby hotels -- and save both time and money.
For example, a recent flight to Hanscom airport outside Boston dropped me right into Thoreau and Minuteman country near the peak foliage season, offering a very different experience than flying into Logan. Upon my return, the car rental agent informed me that my flight might be running late and let me hold onto the car keys until we were sure that the flight would take off, with no additional fee. Only at a small airport can you get that kind of treatment.
Also, keep in mind that smaller airports see fewer flights and, typically, fewer delays -- not a small consideration during the busy holiday travel season.
Plot connections carefully.
When booking flights, check your search results carefully for sufficient time during layovers, and build in some time for flight delays and weather woes. Particularly during the winter months, peak travel times often bring peak travel delays, and your connection is more likely to be jeopardized. Avoiding really tight connections may save you a sprint through the terminal or a missed flight. Also, it is best if you can muscle your flight path into position so that connections are in places less likely to experience delays -- specifically, airports in warmer climates.
During peak travel times, much of the trouble you'll face lies on this side of the security check-in, from traffic jams and full parking lots to absent shuttles and long lines. Rather than striving to "arrive at the airport early," you may want to try to "leave for the airport early" to anticipate all the peripheral delays you may encounter.
In the past, you may have been able to fit everything into your carry-on without having to check any baggage -- a strategy we still recommend. However, the TSA rules about liquids and gels make this a trickier proposition. For the record, you may bring liquids and gels in three-ounce or smaller containers, packed within a single, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag. You're also allowed to bring any liquids (such as coffee or water) or gels purchased after you go through a security checkpoint onto your plane with you. If you want to bring more than the three-ounce amounts, you'll have to pack the items in your checked luggage.
When packing, keep in mind that most airlines are now charging travelers a fee for checking any bags on domestic flights. Read more about the surcharges in Airline Baggage Fees, and trim your luggage load with our tips for What Not to Pack.
Use the Web for more than just booking.
The latest self-service developments in online travel can be tremendous time-savers during peak travel times. Whenever possible, print your boarding passes at home or use check-in kiosks. These services are no longer restricted to the airport, and can be found in hotels and other places in increasing numbers.
Think about doing your holiday shopping online and having your gifts shipped to your destination. This will cut down on luggage and the risk of them getting lost.
Travel early or late in the day.As a rule, airports are least congested at times when normal human beings would rather be at home or even asleep. Delays are far less likely for morning flights, and airports usually unclog as the afternoon and evening peak passes.A couple of caveats: Staffing can be spotty for really early flights, so although your flight is highly likely to be ready to leave on time, check-in may take a while, along with other personnel-dependent steps like riding shuttle buses.
Consider package deals.
Peak travel periods can be the best time to buy package deals, even for folks who would never buy one, as the bundled pricing offered by packages can be very competitive, even (or especially) at times of high demand. I'm traveling on a package over Thanksgiving, and am almost stunned at the offer; you can barely afford to stay home at these prices.