6 Tips for Saving a Ton on Your 2016 Holiday Travel
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.
I know what you're thinking... but Thanksgiving's in two weeks! Well, if you haven't already booked your flights, you might not be out of luck. Just a few days ago, I canceled award tickets in favor of paid flights for myself and three family members (booked for 2 cents per point with my Amex Business Platinum card), redeeming just over 25,000 Membership Rewards points for each transcon flight.
I had booked similar flights with my United miles at 20,000 miles round-trip (during a sale earlier this year), but these revenue flights give me an opportunity to use up my expiring Premier 1K upgrades, and earn some much-needed premier-qualifying miles in the process.
Depending on where you're headed, you might be able to find a great deal too, especially if you're flying overseas or you're able to avoid peak travel days (the day before Thanksgiving, or the Saturday and Sunday after the holiday). As of this writing, nonstop flights between NYC and Chicago can be had for about $160 round-trip; Miami to Dallas will run you less than $300; and Boston to Seattle is available for less than $400 round-trip. Even transcon flights to and from New York are pricing at less than $600 round-trip, with some available below the $500 mark — and if you're willing to add a stop, you can do even better than that.
Even if you have your Thanksgiving flights squared away, you might still be in the market for Christmas and New Year's travel. And the 6 tips below will help you find a great flight (or hotel room) for far less than you may have expected.
1. Use Google Flights to Find Cheap Airfare
I love Google Flights, and the rest of the TPG team uses it religiously, too. It's as simple to use as many of Google's other tools, and if you know how to tweak it, you can book some itineraries that aren't available directly through airline websites. It also lets you know if you can save by booking two one-way flights rather than one round-trip, which is a pretty nifty trick, and you'll get a heads-up if the fare you're seeing is about to expire. You can also set price alerts if you want to keep your eye on specific flights but aren't able to pull the trigger just yet.
The map tool, however, is my favorite feature of all. Input your origin and dates and the map view will show you fares for countless options around the world. In some cases you could get from New York to Hong Kong for the same price as a round-trip to Houston ($100 less even), and the map view makes that perfectly clear. You can also easily see fares to nearby airports (you might save a bit by flying into OAK instead of SFO, for example). If you haven't tried Google Flights yet, head over to the site and take it for a quick spin — I think you'll be impressed.
2. Use Miles to Secure Travel Now
As I did with my family flights for Thanksgiving, leverage your miles now to save on paid flights later. If you know you need to travel to a certain destination on a specific date but the fare's currently out of reach, book the flight with miles now, even if you aren't able to find availability at the saver level. Then, set a price alert on Google Flights and keep an eye on your inbox — if the fare drops (or climbs even higher) you should get an email. It doesn't hurt to check back regularly as well, just in case the price changes before Google gets around the letting you know.
The same goes with tickets that you plan to book with miles regardless of the revenue price. Lock in the flights you need and then keep an eye on award availability. You can also set alerts on ExpertFlyer — these are similar to those offered by Google, but instead of cheaper revenue tickets, you'll get an email when the lower award fare class you need becomes available. This works best if you have elite status, of course — otherwise, you might be facing nasty change or cancellation fees.
3. Take Advantage of Credit Card Offers and Discounts
We see great deals pop up via Amex Offers from time to time, but there are a couple of new opportunities that are always available — if you have the right card. First, the $100 Visa Infinite discount available with the Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card can save you quite a bit when you're booking flights for two. You get a flat $100 discount on round-trip domestic economy flights booked through Visa's portal — if your flight is less than $100 round-trip, you'll be able to travel with a companion for less than the cost of a solo trip. Even better, this benefit extends to authorized users as well, and since AUs are free to add, there's no reason not to let your friends and family members take advantage even when they aren't flying with you.
If you're booking a pricey domestic economy flight, an international itinerary or travel in business or first class, Amex's new 50% points rebate is an even more appealing option. When you book travel via Amex Travel with your the Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN and select the "Pay with Points" option, you get half of your points back within 6-8 weeks. Considering you'll normally redeem through Amex at a rate of 1 cent per point, you're effectively doubling the value of your points to 2 cents. This rebate applies to any travel booked in a premium cabin, or economy flights booked with the same airline you selected for your annual travel credit.
4. Consider Booking International Travel
While you might expect international flights to jump in price whenever domestic fares are high, that often isn't the case — especially if you're willing to travel far from home. In some cases you might actually be able to save by flying the entire family to a destination abroad, rather than one across the country. Generally, this is a better option for last-minute Thanksgiving travel than Christmas or New Year's (since Thanksgiving is only celebrated within the US), but some destinations are still cheap over the peak winter periods.
You might also be able to add on a stopover to an international flight, with fares that match your international destination rather than your domestic stopover point. This is more difficult to accomplish on award tickets (following the recent United changes), but it is possible with certain revenue fares. For example, I stopped in San Diego en-route to Australia for a ~$100 surcharge on a ticket booked from New York to San Diego, San Diego to San Francisco to Sydney and Dubai to New York, with an award flight booked in Etihad's A380 Apartment to connect the two. And don't forget to check out our elite perks exchange — you might be able to get your flight upgraded for free.
5. Travel at Unpopular Times
This might seem obvious, but some travelers simply assume that airlines jack up prices for a range of dates, just because flights are expensive at the most popular travel times. That's simply not the case — you can save a ton by flying before or after the holiday crowds, especially when you're booking (relatively) empty flights within a few weeks of departure.
For example, you should be able to find cheaper Thanksgiving flights if you're willing to fly the morning of November 24, or fly home the day after the holiday instead of on Saturday, Sunday or Monday. As for the December holidays, consider flying out several days before Christmas and returning on New Year's Eve to score significantly lower fares.
6. Call a Hotel Directly to Negotiate Rates
If you're booking a hotel stay over Thanksgiving, or to a destination that isn't a Christmas or New Year's hotspot, don't rule out calling the hotel's sales department directly to see if lower rates are available. Though you're almost as likely to find appealing sites by booking through the chain's website or calling up a reservations agent, so check there first. It also pays to book a refundable rate and to check pricing every few days leading up to your trip — if the hotel has tons of extra rooms to fill, you might see rates drop just before check-in.
Also, don't forget to take advantage of perks like Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts, Chase's Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection and even the Luxury Hotel Collection available to Visa Singature cardholders. You can score valuable perks like room upgrades, free breakfast, food and beverage credits and late check-out. If you're a Citi Prestige cardholder, Citi's 4th Night Free benefit can provide tremendous savings, netting you a statement credit for the full price of the fourth consecutive night of your stay.
It might take a bit of research, but you can easily save hundreds or even thousands of dollars on your holiday travels, especially if you're able to add some flexibility to the equation. Rather than be discouraged by high fares on peak days, think of this as an opportunity to spend more (or less) time with family, visit somewhere new, or earn those much-needed elite-qualifying dollars or miles before the clock strikes midnight on December 31.
What are your tips for saving on holiday travel?