The holiday season is fast approaching, and if you’re planning a trip out of town to visit family or friends, time is running out to get the best price on airfare, rental cars, and hotels. If you haven’t made your travel arrangements, set aside a little time now to save hundreds of dollars that you don’t have to spend later. Here’s how.
Blast from the past is a weekly feature at Lifehacker in which we revive old, but still relevant, posts for your reading and hacking pleasure. This week, it’s time to start thinking about holiday travel. Yes, already.
Watch Fares Closely and Be Flexible to Save Money on Air Travel
Regardless of when and where you plan to fly during the holidays, it’ll likely be more expensive than if you were to fly to the same destination before or after the seasonal rush. After all, the cheapest time to book a flight is eight weeks before you need to leave. If you book after that, though, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to overpriced seats in coach. You can save serious money by flying on Christmas or New Year’s Day, since no one wants to fly on the holidays themselves, and airlines will be eager to fill seats on flights scheduled for those days.
Sign up for a airfare price tracker like Airfare Watchdog that will keep an eye on advertised and unadvertised price drops and changes and alert you if any of them are applicable to your travel plans. Compare ticket prices regularly. Most airlines offer their best prices on their own web sites, but there are plenty of sites to help you book cheap travel and compare prices among airlines, including two of our favorites, Hipmunk and the brand new Google Flight Search (US only.)
Perhaps one of the most important ways to save money on airfare during the holidays is to be flexible. The ability to change your departure date on either end of a round-trip flight by even a day or two can mean hundreds of dollars in savings, and flying in or out of a nearby or regional airport instead of the major international one can also save you some cash, depending on where you’re headed.
Travel Cheap and Comfortable with Train and Bus Discounts
Despite the fact that trains are a great way to travel, Amtrak isn’t terribly cost effective in many cases. The farther you plan to go—especially during peak travel season—the more difficult it is to find a bargain. There are some to be had, however; if you can book 14-days in advance and live in the northeast area of the United States (served by trains running between Boston and Washington, DC) you can pick up as much as 25% off your ticket just by booking early. In my experience, I’ve also found it affordable for short city-to-city trips where a flight would cost the same or more (like Washington DC to New York City, for example).
Also, if you’re a AAA member, US military (Active Duty or Retired,) a senior citizen, or a student, you can qualify for additional discounts on your train tickets. High school juniors or seniors traveling with an adult for the holidays can get up to half off their tickets just by booking them through Campus Visit. For more money saving Amtrak tips, check out this guide to cheaper train tickets at Frommers.
If you’re thinking travel by bus may be up your alley, the first thing to remember is that bus travel isn’t at all the way it used to be, and it’s definitely not as grungy as it was once portrayed in pop culture and movies. These days, low-fare bus lines are comfortable, spacious, and a good alternative to driving. Matthew Kepnes, aka Nomadic Matt, explains:
I would say people who live in New England and the Mid-Atlantic can use Megabus or Bolt Bus for cheap buses around that area. If you book early enough you can get fares for a dollar but even if you miss out on that deal, tickets never top $ 20 USD. The buses also have free Wi-Fi on them. I’d say go with Bolt Bus as it is far nicer of a ride than Megabus.
These low-cost, super-comfortable bus liners have been doing so well that traditional lines like Greyhound, Peter Pan Bus Lines, and Trailways have all taken notice and are getting in on the game as well. Shop around, a bus can offer an easy and comfortable ride for very little cash that you may not have previously considered.
Steer Clear of Airport Counters and Look Out for Fees to Save Money on Car Rentals
Unless your friends or family are interested in carting you around when you land, you’ll need a rental car. There are deals to be had here too—most rental companies offer special weekly rates if you rent for four or more days, especially if those days are over a weekend (when daily rates are the highest.) Try different companies and different durations, and you may get a price break. Make sure to check the rental company’s web site for deals or bargain prices you may qualify for before you book. About.com has a great list of links to many rental company special offers pages that can help.
Similarly, if you can avoid airport rentals and make your way to a smaller branch of your preferred rental company, you’ll save a lot of money. Airport fees can mount up quickly, making the rental counter in the airport garage much less attractive than the one 2 miles away in a nearby suburb—plus, the suburban location may be willing to pick you up from the airport if you call them.
Finally, decline the company-offered insurance when you pick up the keys (and make sure that your own insurance policy covers rentals: rental companies often claim their insurance covers you when your regular insurance won’t, something that’s often untrue) and top off the tank when you return the vehicle (or else you’ll be subject to ridiculously high fuel charges to fill the tank.) If you rent from one company consistently, keep an eye on your mailbox: they’ll often send you coupons for future rentals that can shave a little off your final bill.
Rent Apartments and Homes Instead of Hotels for Cheap, Luxurious Holiday Accommodations
Hotels can be comfortable, but they’re also expensive. Consider renting an entire apartment or house-sit for someone else who’s traveling instead to save money and get more amenities. If you think you’ll find yourself scrubbing Craigslist for rooms for rent, you’re way off. In fact, short-term apartment rentals are booming, and according to Matt, are cost-effective and comfortable in most cases.
You’ll be able to get the comforts of home, have a kitchen to cook your own food, and stay in the local area of a city where prices for restaurants will be geared to locals not tourists. A friend of mine just rented an apartment in L.A. for $ 300 dollars for a week and I stayed in central London for $ 40 USD per night using this accommodation type.
If you must stay in a hotel, or would prefer to regardless, you can still save a few bucks by bidding on hotel rooms on sites like Priceline or Hotwire. If you’re not sure how to get started, you can head over to Better Bidding, another site we mentioned last time we hacked out travel plans, to find out how other people bid, what prices they won, and where you should start based on your travel dates.
Save Money on Gas by Pre-Planning Your Route
If you’re thinking about driving to your holiday destination, a little pre-planning and research on fuel prices in the states along your route will help you save money during your trip. “For those driving, I would say you can lower your cost of the trip by planning your route around states with cheap gas,” Matt suggests. “Gas up in Jersey instead of New York, gas up in Texas instead of Oklahoma, gas up in Nevada instead of California. Things like that. When I drove cross country, I made sure to always leave a cheap gas state with a full tank.”
While it doesn’t make sense to drive out of your way for gas that’s marginally cheaper, it does make sense to make sure you fill up the tank in states where gas is cheaper, and depending on where your road trip route goes, you can find bargains along the way. Apps like previously mentioned SmartFuel can help you find out fuel costs on your phone, as can sites like GasBuddy and GasPriceWatch.
While fuel prices are definitely the biggest road trip money sink, they’re not the only ones. Before you leave, make sure your car gets a good check-up, that the tires are inflated to the proper pressure, and everything is in working order. The last thing you want is to encounter a preventable and possibly expensive mechanical problem on the highway in the middle of the holiday rush.
Stay Close to Home or Take a Cold Weather Vacation to Save Even More
Most of us will have to deal with the obligation to travel to visit our family this holiday season, but if you have the option, one way to save money is the obvious: stay home. Whether you make the rest of your family come to you or you just opt instead to spend a quiet holiday at home instead of a busy and noisy one with family and friends, you can save a bundle by being a tourist in your back yard and doing something different for the holidays.
A staycation may not get you out of the guilt-trip that your family may apply if you decide not to come visit this holiday season, so instead consider last-minute cruise or tour for the whole family. We’ve discussed a number of great ways to take a cold-weather vacation on the cheap before, and many of them hold up during the holidays, too. Cruises are particularly affordable during the cold-weather months. “It’s best to book tours or cruises last minute,” Matt explains. “Booking early never gets the best deal. Last minute tours or cruises are always cheaper and can be usually found up to 40% off as companies try to fill empty space. I always wing it when booking one of these. There is always a last minute deal that will save you hundreds of dollars off the regular price.”
That way, instead of dealing with the airports or the train station or a long road trip just to get to your family’s house and stay in the same room you slept in through high school, you and everyone in the family can take a cheap, luxurious cruise, save money while doing it, and have a holiday to remember.
Whatever You Do, Book Now
Whatever you choose to do, now is the time to make your travel arrangements (cruises excepted, of course.) The closer we get to the holiday season, the more prices will rise, and by that time even the “last minute” airfare and hotel deals will look like today’s prices. Just make sure to be flexible with your departure dates and locations, shop around, and if keep your eyes open for bargains. If all else fails, do something unorthodox—you never know, it might make for a better, cheaper holiday travel season than you expected.
What are some of your favorite holiday travel tips? Anything you’ve learned from experience that you want to share with your fellow travelers? Share your experiences in the comments below.
Matthew Kepnes is also known as Nomadic Matt, and has been around the world and then some. You can catch his latest adventures on his website, or follow him on Twitter as @nomadicmatt or on Facebook. He graciously offered his help for this article, and we thank him.