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Expensive airfare and increasing gas prices: Here’s how you can still save on holiday travel

November 5 2021
10 min read
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Editor's Note

This post has been updated with new information.

Editor's note: This post has been updated with new information.

While travel hasn't quite bounced back to 2019 levels, it's still safe to say that airports and highways will be busy this holiday season as more people make the decision to travel for the season. But between staffing shortages causing mass cancelations and delays, increasing gas prices and recent loyalty program devaluations, it's also safe to say traveling this holiday season may be a bit more expensive than usual.

If you haven't booked your flights or hotels just yet, there's still time to take advantage of deals and money-saving tips for the holiday season. Today, we're running through our top tips for booking budget-friendly travel this fall and winter.

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Pick your travel dates wisely

You could potentially save a pretty penny just by adjusting your travel dates — certain days around the holidays will experience high demand and therefore higher prices.

According to Hopper's 2021 Holiday Travel Guide Report, here are the best and worst dates to travel this holiday season:

Cheapest days to fly

  • For domestic Thanksgiving flights, fly on Monday, Nov. 22
  • For international Thanksgiving flights, fly on Wednesday, Nov. 24
  • For domestic Christmas flights, fly on Tuesday, Dec. 21
  • For international Christmas flights, fly on Thursday, Dec. 22

Most expensive days to fly

  • For Thanksgiving return flights, Sunday, Nov. 28 will be most expensive for both domestic and international flights
  • For Christmas return flights, Sunday, Dec. 26 will be the most expensive for both domestic and international flights

Of course, specific pricing will depend on where you're going and when you book, too. Based on Hopper's predictive pricing data, booking Thanksgiving travel as soon as possible is best. For late December travel, you should try to book before the week of Thanksgiving (which is when prices start to rise drastically).

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, but I’ll remind you of a TPG-favorite tool: Google Flights 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.

(Screenshot courtesy of Google Flights)

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.

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 is typically the way to go, but using these tools to find deals before going through the booking process 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 seasons may be appealing, but it could cost you $400 to $600 per person. Keep those swimsuits packed away in the drawer, however, and you could save hundreds of dollars per person flying somewhere else.

San Juan Puerto Rico beach at Condado. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

Tropical getaways can usually cost a fortune during the holidays but, from Houston, under $200 per person during Thanksgiving week gets you round-trip flights to Miami or New Orleans. Miami can be a good substitute if you're hoping for a warmer destination, and New Orleans is an underrated fall destination 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, good deals can be found 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 exploring a national park. Here are some of our favorite national parks during the winter months.

Be a points pro

For many, the past two years have been heavier on the "earning" side than the "burning" side of the points and miles game.

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? That’ll cost you 10,000 Avianca LifeMiles from Houston — or often 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.

If you just can’t shake the idea of ditching your turkey and cranberry sauce for sunny Aruba or elsewhere in the Caribbean, JetBlue might be your answer, as you can book flights even for Thanksgiving week from New York-JFK to Aruba (AUA) for 11,500 points each way.

If you don’t have JetBlue points right now, that’s not a problem. You can transfer them from Amex Membership Rewards to fill your up TrueBlue account.

Eagle Beach in Aruba. (Photo by Marc Boettinger/Getty Images)

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 with gifts, it adds up even faster.

For example, a 50-pound bag would cost at least $58 to check with Spirit Airlines, as it’s overweight by a good 10 pounds. However, for an example flight from Houston to New York, you could ship that luggage 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 always 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.

Don’t go hungry

Many airport lounges have reopened (as well as a couple of new additions) — from Priority Pass lounges to Amex Centurion Lounges to airline lounges — and started serving hoy meals once again. With elite status or the right credit card, you could get access for free or a steep discount.

Grabbing food at a lounge can easily save a family $50 or more at the airport.

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. Through Feb. 1, 2023, up to two guests can come in with you, too.

Related: Best credit cards for airport lounge access

Save on gas

Of course, flying isn't the only mode of travel — many travelers take road trips to see family during the holidays. However, between the rental car shortages and continually increasing gas prices, your cross-country road trip can get just as expensive as flying.

(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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.

Related: Here’s how I save $1,000 per year on gas fill-ups

Bottom line

While traveling is certainly easier (and safer) this year, it likely won't be any less stressful. And unfortunately, prices have bounced back to pre-pandemic levels — and in some cases higher. Thankfully, that doesn't mean you can't still save on holiday travel with the right tips and tricks.

Since the holidays fall around the time of year that winter weather picks up (not to mention the ongoing pandemic), be sure and book the trip with a card that conveys trip insurance (or buy your own) in case you hit delays or cancellations (which have been more prevalent this year due to staffing shortages). 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.

Additional reporting by Madison Blancaflor.

Featured photo by Featured image by Bernd Ducke/Munich Airport
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.