Expensive airfare and increasing gas prices: Here’s how you can still save on holiday travel
It’s been a huge year for travel. This summer proved to be the busiest ever for U.S. airports, with the TSA screening a record 227.5 million passengers between Memorial Day weekend and Fourth of July. And while there were some hiccups — such as United’s operational challenges in late June — there’s hope the holiday season might go much smoother for travelers than the Christmas nightmares Southwest Airlines travelers felt in 2022.
Between always-high holiday airfare prices, the ever-steep cost of hotel rooms and one loyalty program devaluation after another, being strategic about your holiday 2023 travel booking is critical to avoiding frustration and overspending.
If you haven’t booked your flights or hotels just yet, now is the time to get serious about booking holiday trips and finding ways to save money in the process.
Related: How to get started with points and miles
Pick your travel dates wisely
You could save a pretty penny just by adjusting your travel dates a little. Certain days around the holidays will experience higher demand and, therefore, come with higher prices.
In both 2021 and 2022, the single busiest travel day of the year, according to TSA checkpoint volume, fell on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
Just how much can you save by arriving a day earlier or leaving a day later?
Let’s say I’m traveling from Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) to New York for Thanksgiving. Departing on the Wednesday before the holiday and returning the Sunday after, the cheapest round trip goes for $418 on Delta Air Lines.
If I can wait until Monday to return, though, look how much the price drops: it’s $198 for the round trip — a 52% saving. A family of four will save $880 if you can wait until Monday.
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In its “Christmas in July” report, booking app Hopper had the following suggestions:
- Depart on the Monday before the holiday for the cheapest airfare.
- Return any weekday during the week after Thanksgiving.
- The most expensive days this year will likely be the Thursday and Friday (Dec. 21-22) before the holiday (which falls on a Monday).
- To save, plan to depart Wednesday, Dec. 20 or earlier/later than the peak days.
Of course, specific pricing will also depend on where you’re going and when you book.
Still, Hopper says that, on average, the best time to book holiday flights (Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s) will be in late September or early October.
Google Flights echos that, saying you’ll typically find the best deals for a mid-December or later trip around early October — which is coming up fast.
Know how to look for cheap airfare
One of the best tips for finding well-priced holiday flights is simply knowing how to look for them.
TPG has a complete guide to finding cheap airfare, so I won’t repeat all the tips here. However, I’ll remind you of a TPG-favorite tool: Google Flights. Google Flights has a search option that doesn’t require you to enter your destination. This tool is golden if your holiday travel plans are still up in the air or you just want to consider your options.
You can enter your origin city and your preferred travel dates, then just leave the destination blank. You’ll see the prices it finds to points near and far.
Or, if you already know exactly where you need to go to trim the tree, 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 more than $100 in either direction.
Google Flights now also has a tool that recommends when you should book a flight based on past data trends for your specific route and itinerary.
For instance, for our DFW to New York Thanksgiving trip example, Google Flights advises I book sometime between now and Nov. 8 (though it seems like the latter date would be cutting it awfully close) to get the lowest price for this trip.
Additionally, check out price alert tools such as Hopper or Skyscanner. If you have a specific destination in mind, you can set up alerts for the best time to book.
Booking flights directly with the airline is typically the way to go, but using these tools to find deals before booking directly with an airline can make your hunt for the best price much easier.
Go where others aren’t
Flying to sunny Cancun or Puerto Rico during Thanksgiving or the winter holiday season may be appealing, but it could cost you $400 to $600 per person. However, you could save hundreds of dollars per person by flying somewhere else.
Tropical getaways can usually cost a fortune during the holidays. However, from Houston, less than $200 per person gets you round-trip flights to Miami or New Orleans during Thanksgiving week. Miami can be a good substitute if you’re hoping for a warmer destination, and New Orleans is an underrated fall spot for anyone who wants to explore the iconic city without the imposing heat of Louisiana summers.
Related: Best places to visit in November
No matter where you’re based, you can find good deals by heading to offseason locales and setting your sights somewhere far from where most people tend to flock. Instead of a beachy retreat in the Caribbean or Mexico, try an early-season ski week around Thanksgiving or explore a national park. Here are some of our favorite national parks during the winter months.
Be a points pro
Another way to save money as you book holiday flights is, of course, to use points.
You’ll want to be careful that you avoid getting gouged, though. Many airline and hotel loyalty programs now use dynamic pricing for award flights and award stays. This oftentimes means that when the cash price goes up (as it tends to do around the holidays), the points price can also be very high.
One way to combat this is to transfer your Chase, Capital One, Citi and Amex points to airline alliance partners with more predictable award pricing structures.
Want to visit snowy Aspen? You could book a flight aboard United Airlines, for instance, using Avianca Life Miles. Assuming there’s award space, it will cost you 10,000 Life Miles in each direction, versus often more than $300 per person each way if you pay cash.
Getting creative and considering the full range of transfer partners you can tap into with your rewards credit card can help you put your points and miles to great use … even around the holidays in some cases.
Ship it or pack it?
If you check your luggage, you could pay $30-$50 for a standard checked bag on a domestic flight. Ideally, you’ll have a way around those fees thanks to elite status or the right credit card in your wallet. If you don’t, the cost adds up. If your bag is overweight with gifts or oversized, it adds up even faster.
But you may be able to ship that luggage via a UPS extra-large simple ship box (up to 50 pounds) for about $26. If you don’t want to shop around yourself, you can use the site LugLess to price out and purchase shipping for your belongings; services range from DIY dropoff to doorstep pick-up and delivery.
Shipping won’t always be cheaper, but even if it isn’t, it will usually be easier than lugging extra stuff and waiting around at baggage claim. Plus, it can remove some of the stress travelers faced in recent years with luggage.
Just be sure to allow some buffer delivery time around the holidays.
Don’t go hungry
There are far fewer closed storefronts along airport concourses than during the height of the pandemic (and even after, amid lingering staffing shortages).
However, the financial burden of an airport meal — which can easily set a family back $50 or more — can be substantial.
Check to see if your airline status or credit card gets you access to lounges or discounts, whether it’s a Priority Pass credit at a restaurant or complimentary access to an airline lounge such as the Amex Centurion Lounge. Just be sure to check access rules in advance since many lounge operators have tightened entry and guest requirements to stem overcrowding since last year.
For example, say you have The Platinum Card® from American Express and want to get your family into one of the Amex Centurion Lounges across the country. Unless you’ve spent $75,000 with your card this or last year, bringing a guest age 18 or older will cost you $50; a child age 2 to 17 is $30.
Related: Best credit cards for airport lounge access
Save on gas
Of course, flying isn’t the only mode of travel — many travelers drive to see family during the holidays. Though gas prices are certainly lower than the worst points in 2022, the costs of a lengthy road trip can add up with multiple fill-ups and tolls.
AAA currently reports an average gallon of unleaded gas sits at around $3.84. That’s up slightly from $3.70 one year ago, though well beneath the all-time national average record of $5.01 per gallon.
You can use GasBuddy to find the cheapest gas near you (and potentially even save up to 40 cents per gallon when you use its prepaid gas card). Also, consider taking advantage of fuel rewards programs. Many gas station chains (and a few grocery stores such as Kroger and Harris Teeter) have loyalty programs that help you save up to a dollar per gallon at the pump. We’ve got more ways to save on gas here.
Related: Here’s how I save $1,000 per year on gas fill-ups
Thinking back on the last couple of years, travel is shaping up to be potentially easier than last year.
As the Christmas 2022 Southwest Airlines meltdown holiday and 2021 omicron spike showed us, though, booking with a card that offers trip insurance — or buying your own — can provide peace of mind and protection if things go awry.
And, if this summer’s record crowds at airports were any indication, you’ll also want to ensure that your PreCheck, Global Entry and/or Clear Plus memberships are up to date so you can get through airport security faster as crowds grow.
Cheaper holiday travel is possible if you are strategic with when you fly, where you travel and what types of rewards you use to help you get there.