8 ways to save money on holiday travel this year

Oct 12, 2020

In a normal year, the average price of an airline ticket around the holidays is close to $500 per person according to AAA. 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.

But this year, things are different. In 2020, holiday travel may actually be … more affordable than ever for those who decide the time is right to see family or simply get away.

For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our free daily newsletter.

Know how to look for cheap airfare

The first tip for finding well-priced holiday flights is 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 my 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.

Buy during a promo

Normally, it’s very uncommon for airlines and hotels to put out massive promotions for holiday travel dates. But this is 2020 and the old rule book has been shelved as travel demand remains depressed.

Travel promos have already appeared for fall travel dates, with some even creeping into holiday territory. These have included a two-month Southwest Companion Pass, buy-one, get-one Alaska Airlines flights, 15–25% of redeemed Hyatt points back and all off-peak pricing at most Marriott properties.

It’s very possible more holiday travel deals will appear and our advice is to strike quickly if the deal is hot, especially if it is for exactly when and where you want to travel. Follow along at @tpg_alerts to get notified when really hot deals appear.

Related: What it’s like to fly in the U.S. right now

Go where others aren’t

Flying to sunny Cancun or Aruba during Thanksgiving may be appealing (and actually open to Americans), 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.

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 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. They’re all a reasonable drive from Las Vegas, and you don’t have to worry about stifling desert heat during November and December.

Related: Best places to visit in November 

Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, USA (Matt Anderson Photography / Getty Images)
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. (Photo by Matt Anderson Photography/Getty Images)

And travelers based in Los Angeles can spend around $350 on airfare to spend the holidays hunting for the northern lights in Alaska. (Here are the testing requirements for Alaska.)

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.

Related: Best places to travel in November

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. Of course, this year, business travel ground to a virtual halt back in March, but you get the idea.

Business travelers are usually the ones snapping up first-class seats on someone else’s dime or with their frequent flyer perks. So, especially around the holidays, it’s not that unusual to find first-class seats that don’t cost much more than economy. Occasionally, you will even find first-class awards that cost less than economy awards.

Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines
Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines

In other cases, economy may be sold out while first class remains available using miles or points.

Related: How to fly American’s best business class seats domestically

Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines

Be a points pro

Many of us haven’t been traveling as much this year, which makes it a pretty great time to learn how to stretch your miles and points before booking those holiday flights.

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.

Screenshot courtesy of United Airlines

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 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 Amex Membership Rewards to fill your up TrueBlue account.

Eagle Beach in Aruba. (Photo by Marc Boettinger / Getty Images)
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 usually 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 New Year’s 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.

In 2018, Expedia reported, travelers saved roughly $100 by flying on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve versus travelers who began their trip the Saturday before.

Photo by Mikhail Starodubov/Shutterstock
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 $58 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 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

It is a mistake this year to just assume your normal airport restaurant favorites are available. Many remain closed, but some have reopened. Some airline lounges have reopened, too.

While some of them have not yet reopened, there are a couple of dozen restaurants across 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.

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 are allowed a $28 food allowance, too.

Inside Landry's at IAH
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 that will have reopened by the holidays. Up to two guests can come in with you, too.

Related: Best credit cards for airport lounge access

Bottom line

The holidays will be unusual this year. While some stress will be inevitable this season, our goal is to help you minimize the stress and expense that can come with holiday travel. Brush up on your state-by-state quarantine restrictions, which airlines are still blocking middle seats and pack that carry-on bag with 2020 pandemic-era travel essentials.

Since the holidays fall around the time of year that winter weather picks up (not to mention the 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. 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/Munich Airport

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.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.