For many of us, the winter holidays are a time to visit far-off friends and family. But inflation and soaring gas prices have pushed the cost of going home for the holidays to new highs. With prices rising, how can you economize on holiday travel? You can save money on holiday travel by booking early, being flexible, using credit card points and rewards and searching out discounts.
1. Be Flexible With Flights
Flights immediately before and after Thanksgiving and Christmas are typically costly. You can save by booking flights on less popular dates—maybe even the holiday itself. For example, flying from Los Angeles to Chicago on Thanksgiving Day saves you $100 compared with flying the day before Thanksgiving, as of publication. You'll have to weigh the savings against the risk of flight delays or missed connections, though. Moving your family gathering to another date could yield the biggest savings; the same flight on Saturday, December 3, costs just $65.
Red-eye or multistop flights typically cost less than daytime or nonstop flights. Conventional wisdom that flying into smaller airports is cheaper doesn't always hold true (flying from California's Long Beach International Airport to Chicago's Midway on November 27 costs $544, compared with $219 for the same flight from Los Angeles International to Chicago O'Hare). Use a tool such as Google Flights to investigate how pricing changes with different airports, departure times and stops—you may be surprised.
2. Book Flights and Rental Cars in Advance
The earlier you lock in flights and rental cars, the better. Purchasing a flight 25 to 150 days in advance yields the lowest fares, according to airfare prediction app Hopper. Ongoing rental car shortages make locking in your rental early a smart move too. Set up price alerts on Google Flights, Kayak or Skyscanner to get notified when fares drop.
3. Travel Light
Avoid checking a bag (which can cost close to $100, depending on the airline) and bring one carry-on. Got gifts to haul? Save space in your luggage by giving gift cards or shopping after you arrive.
4. Hitch a Ride
Eliminate the need for a rental car by borrowing a family member's car or getting rides during your stay. Since most of your activities will likely involve friends and family, hitching a ride could be the easiest option. Also consider rideshare services. The cost of rideshares has soared with the price of gas, and holiday surge pricing could push it higher. Still, if you only need a rideshare once or twice, it will still be cheaper (and less hassle) than renting a car.
5. Use Points and Rewards
Using airline, hotel or travel rewards credit card points to pay for flights or hotels leaves you more cash for holiday spending. Don't have enough points yet? Accrue points for next time by using rewards credit cards to pay for travel. Scan your cards' benefits to find those that offer travel perks such as rental car or trip insurance, free checked bags or room upgrades.
6. Book Through the Hotel
The web isn't always the best place to book a hotel room. Search online for the lowest hotel price, then call the hotel to ask about a better deal. Many hotels offer lower prices when you reserve directly with them. (Be sure to call the local hotel number, not the hotel's general toll-free number.)
7. Always Ask About Discounts
Most hotels and rental car companies offer discounts to members of organizations or certain groups of people, such as seniors. You might get a discount for being over 65, belonging to AAA or working for a certain company, for instance. Signing up for hotel or car rental companies' emails or joining their free membership clubs can be another way to save, or get free upgrades like late checkout.
8. Explore All Transportation Options
Flying isn't always the fastest route home. For a short haul, such as Boston to New York City or Seattle to Portland, a train could cost less and provide more freedom, luggage space and leg room. Factor in time you'll save by skipping airport security, and the train might even be faster. Driving to your destination is another option, but if you don't have a car you'll need to factor in the cost of a rental car. If the trip involves more than a day on the road, you'll also have to factor in gas, hotels and meals en route. Depending on your destination, however, a road trip could cost less than plane fare for the whole family.
9. Stay With Family or Friends
The average cost of a hotel stay has more than doubled since 2019. Do you have a family member or buddy with a spare room? Ask if you can bunk with them. Depending on your budget (and your back), it may be worth sleeping on a lumpy foldout couch to save several hundred dollars in hotel costs.
10. Share Your Vacation Rental
Cleaning fees, service fees, taxes—the price of vacation rental properties can add up fast. Singles or couples can save by renting a room in a rental property instead of the whole house. If you don't mind sharing the house with your host, you'll enjoy substantial savings. For example, a room in Pasadena, California, costs about $60 a night, compared with $200 and up for a whole house. Fees are proportionately lower for single rooms too.
11. Build Travel Into Your Holiday Budget
Surrounded by advertising, social media and sales, it's easy to end up overspending during the holidays. Create a holiday budget that includes the cost of travel, as well as entertaining, gifts and whatever else makes the holidays special to you. Budgeting will give you a realistic idea of what you can afford so you can prioritize your spending.
Enjoy Seasonal Savings
Will you be using credit cards for holiday travel? Make sure you can pay the full statement balance, so you don't start the New Year with high-interest debt. Another option: Apply for a credit card with a 0% introductory interest rate and you can pay off your holiday purchases over time without incurring interest. Promotional 0% APR cards typically require a good to excellent credit score. Check your credit score before applying and try Experian CreditMatch™ to get matched with credit cards that fit your credit profile.