7 ways to save serious cash on holiday travel

a group of people standing in front of a building

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Want to fly home (or far away) for the holidays? According to AAA, the average price of an airline ticket to fly home around the holidays is close to $500 per person. Checked bags — or even boxes of presents — can set you back $60 or more per trip if you aren’t careful. And if you need to book a hotel room to stay near your family, you’re easily looking at an additional $100 per night, if not more, depending on location.

Quick math says a family of four is in for a few grands in travel costs before they can say, “Ho, Ho — no way that’s too expensive, we’re staying home!”

Fortunately, we have more than a few strategies for saving money every step of the way, whether you want to find affordable flights or save money on bag fees and airport food.

Know how to look for cheap airfare

Despite headlines that suggest otherwise, you can find affordable flights out there, even for holiday travel dates — but you have to know where to look or you won’t find them.

TPG has a complete guide to finding cheap airfare, so I won’t repeat all the tips, but I’ll remind you of my favorite tool: Google Flights, which has a search option that doesn’t require you to put in your destination. This tool is good as gold if your holiday travel plans are still up in the air.

You can put your city as the origin, your preferred travel dates and then just leave the destination blank and see the prices it finds to points near and far.

a screenshot of a cell phone

Or, if you already know exactly where you need to go to trim the tree and break the bread, plug in your origin and destination, and use Google Flights to quickly scan for the cheapest travel date. During the holidays, having even one or two days of flexibility can swing the price over $100 in either direction.

Go where others aren’t

If you live in New York City, flying to sunny Cancun or Aruba during Thanksgiving may be appealing, but it could cost you more than $600 per person. Keep those swimsuits packed away in the drawer, however, and you could save about $150 each if you cross the ocean to London, Amsterdam and Milan instead. And there are plenty of great reasons to visit London — and the rest of Europe — during the holidays beyond cheaper airfare. (Think: Christmas markets and thin crowds.)

Tropical getaways can cost a fortune during the holidays, but from Houston, approximately $200 per person during Thanksgiving week gets you round-trip flights to Las Vegas, which is a great starting point for exploring great outdoors destinations such as the Valley of Fire,Death Valley, Zion and the Grand Canyon if Vegas itself isn’t your thing. They’re all a reasonable drive from Las Vegas, and you don’t have to worry about stifling desert heat during November and December.

a sunset over a hill: Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. (Photo by Matt Anderson Photography/Getty Images)

And travelers based in Los Angeles can spend around $300 round-trip to really skip town and go to Beijing or Shanghai, while approximately $400 on airfare can be the key to spending your holiday hunting for the northern lights in Alaska.

No matter where you’re based, good deals can be found by heading to offseason locales and setting your sights somewhere far from the crowds. Instead of a beachy retreat in the Caribbean or Mexico, or a classic holiday ski week — especially during the December holidays and the New Year — consider a European city break or a national park.

Don’t rule out first class

Here’s the weird thing about the holiday travel season: Leisure travel picks up, but business travel grinds to a halt. Business travelers are usually the ones snapping up first class seats on someone else’s dime or with their frequent flyer perks. So, around the holidays, it’s not that unusual to find first class seats that don’t cost much more than economy would if you pay with cash — and with miles, those first class fares may be cheaper than economy. This was true on the search I ran on flights from Houston (IAH) to Los Angeles (LAX) the day before Thanksgiving.

That nonstop flight is available for 30,000 American Airlines miles in economy, but the exact same flight in first class is just 25,000 American Airlines miles.

a screenshot of a cell phone
a screenshot of a cell phone

And on Nov. 26, American’s economy seats from New York-JFK to Miami International (MIA) aren’t available using partner miles, such as British Airways Avios. But you can fly that same route in domestic first class/business class for just 16,500 Avios, plus $5.60 in taxes and fees.

a screenshot of a cell phone

Be a points pro

I know, your favorite airline frequent flyer program or using points at a fixed cash value is your warm and comfy spot. But this is the holiday season, when otherwise sane people line-up at Walmart at midnight to save a few bucks on a gadget or gizmo. This is when we cut down live trees, cover them in tiny lights and fake snow, and watch them die slowly over the course of a month in our living rooms.

Mostly, however, it’s the time to up your points game if you want to save a lot of money on holiday travel.

Learn about transferring those Chase, Capital One,Citi and Amex points to partners as it can be the difference between saving all your holiday dreams or emptying out your wallet. Want to fly to snowy Aspen before New Year’s Eve? That’ll cost you 10,000 Avianca LifeMiles from Houston — or more than $300 per person in each direction if you prefer cash. So transfer your miles to Avianca from Capital One, Amex or Citi and book that United flight without blowing your budget.

a close up of a flower

If you just can’t shake the idea of ditching your turkey and cranberry sauce for sunny Aruba, JetBlue might be your answer, as you can book a one-way flight on the Monday of Thanksgiving week from New York-JFK to Aruba (AUA) for 9,100 points and just $15. If you don’t have JetBlue points right now, that’s not a problem. You can transfer them from Citi ThankYou, Chase Ultimate Rewards or Amex Membership Rewards to fill your up TrueBlue account.

a group of people on a beach near a body of water: Eagle Beach in Aruba. (Photo by Marc Boettinger/Getty Images)

Leave early or stay late

Want to pay 32% more for your holiday flights? Go home on Sunday. If you want to avoid that Sunday surcharge, Hipmunk advises travelers to sneak out early or stay an extra couple of days. Whether you depart on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or fly out last-minute on Thanksgiving morning, your savings will be significant if you leave the Friday following Thanksgiving. Even Saturday departures are significantly less expensive than those turkey-stuffed travelers flying on Sunday. You can also save on the front-end of the trip if you head home for Thanksgiving on Monday or Tuesday instead of waiting for Wednesday.

While we’re talking about travel dates, yes, Thanksgiving and the week of Christmas and the New Year are very busy and often pricey. But those first couple weeks in December are slower than normal and there are outstanding deals to be had if you’re OK taking your holiday trip sandwiched between the most popular travel times. There are other timeless travel tips that still hold true, too. Among them? It’s almost always cheaper to fly on the holiday itself.

Last year, Expedia reported, travelers saved roughly $100 by flying on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve versus travelers who began their trip the Saturday before.

a group of people in a room: Photo by Mikhail Starodubov/Shutterstock

Ship it or pack it?

It can cost $30 to $50 for a standard checked bag on a domestic flight. Ideally, you have a way around those fees thanks to elite status or with the right credit card in your wallet, but if you don’t, that adds up. If your bag is overweight or oversized, it adds up even faster.

For example, a 50-pound bag would cost at least $90 to check with Spirit Airlines, as it’s overweight by a good 10 pounds. However, in the case of our test flight from Houston to New York, you could ship it via a UPS extra-large simple ship box (up to 50 pounds) for about $24. If you don’t want to shop around yourself, you can use the site LugLess to price out and purchase shipping for your stuff with services ranging from DIY dropoff to doorstep pick-up and delivery.

Shipping won’t aways be cheaper, but it can be. Even if shipping isn’t cheaper, it will usually be easier than lugging extra stuff and waiting around at baggage claim. Just be sure to allow some buffer delivery time around the holidays.

Fill up for free

It’s a known fact of life that airport food is expensive. Sure, you can pack your own snacks and sandwiches from home (and huge high fives if you do), but you may have enough going on around the holidays without slicing grapes and melons before heading to the airport. If you get to the airport hungry or thirsty, remember there are 28 restaurants across 21 U.S. airports where a Priority Pass lounge membership that comes with select credit cards may buy you and your friend(s) or family a free meal.

Whether you’re starting your journey or connecting at an airport such as Houston (IAH), Los Angeles (LAX), Boston (BOS), Miami (MIA) or St. Louis (STL), pack a Priority Pass membership that didn’t come with an Amex card, and get around $28 per person worth of free food — usually at least one or two guests is allowed a $28 food allowance, too.

a dining room table: Eat at Landry’s in Houston’s Terminal C for free (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

If you do have The Platinum Card® from American Express, swipe your way into one of the Amex Centurion Lounges across the country in airports such as New York-LGA, Philadelphia (PHL) Miami (MIA), Las Vegas (LAS) or Houston (IAH) and visit the buffet or bar with up to two guests at no extra charge.

Bottom line

The holidays are a dichotomy of extremes — it can be a magical time to travel, relax and spend time with family, but it can also be stressful, harried and expensive. Our goal is to help you minimize the stress and expense that can come with holiday travel. Since the holidays fall around the time of year that winter weather picks up, be sure and book the trip with a card that conveys trip insurance (or buy your own) in case you hit delays or cancellations. You’ll also want to ensure that your PreCheck, Global Entry and/or CLEAR memberships are up to date so you can get through airport security faster.

Cheaper holiday travel is a very real thing, as long as you are strategic with when you fly, where you travel and what type of rewards you use to help you get there.

Featured image by Bernd Ducke/Courtesy Munich Airport

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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