Is There Such a Thing as Cheap Holiday Travel?

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It is never my intention to offer discouraging financial advice, but I do think it’s important to take a realistic approach to saving and spending. Therefore, it’s with a very heavy heart that I tell you holiday travel is always going to be expensive.


I’ve spent a lot of years searching for secret websites with the best deals on December flights, and I have yet to find a consistent winner. Everyone travels at Thanksgiving and Christmas, so there’s no way a useful trick for finding cheap flights could stay under wraps. If you’re still doing a Google search for “cheap holiday travel” every morning through the months of October and November, it’s probably time to move on.


Am I writing this post simply to ruin your day? You’ll be happy to hear that, no, I am not. While holiday travel will always be expensive, there are a few ways you can soften the blow and avoid driving yourself into massive debt. I’ll go over some tricks I’ve learned through the years, and hopefully you’ll be able to use this information and save some money this winter!

Budget Early and Often

This isn’t going to blow any minds, but the best way to pay for plane tickets is by having enough money to make the purchase. If October rolls around and your first thought is, “Yikes, how am I going to get to Florida in November?” then you’re already losing the travel battle. It’s no secret that these flights are expensive, so you should start planning as far in advance as possible.


I’m partial to putting aside money every month, and I try to aim high so I might have a little cash left over after the tickets are bought. I know it’s tough to save for plane tickets that you won’t buy for another eight or nine months, but it’s the best way to ensure you’re not scrambling and digging into your savings to cover last-minute costs.


The other benefit of starting your travel fund early is being able to jump when you see a good price. Most flights become available around 10 months in advance, so the sooner you have money set aside the sooner you can make a purchase. I don’t recommend buying too far in advance, as airlines set fares high at first before adjusting for demand. When those prices start falling into an affordable price range, it’s nice if you’re ready to swoop in and buy the tickets you need.


Cheap holiday travel is always hard to find. If you budget in advance for this spending, you at least improve your chances of getting a good deal.

Shop Smart

Have you heard that certain days of the week are better for booking cheap holiday flights? Are you a little skeptical of this claim? I was myself, but a little bit of research showed this is often times the case.


The reasoning actually makes sense. Over the weekend, most airlines look at inventory and demand, then figure out how to adjust prices. If a particular flight hasn’t been selling, there’s a good chance prices will be lower on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday of the following week. As people start purchasing those reduced fares, ticket prices will go back up before the weekend.


Knowing what days to do your shopping is one part of the equation; finding the days with the cheapest flights is a whole separate issue. Holiday travel costs a lot because everyone is looking to fly during the same time frame. That means traveling on less-popular flying days could provide the cheaper option.


Unfortunately, the days with the fewest travelers are Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.This is less than ideal if you don’t want to travel on these days, and most people would rather spend more than fly on a holiday. However, if money is the most important consideration, you can save a few hundred dollars flying out on Christmas Day and returning on January 1. Not the most exciting days to fly,but saving cash isn’t always thrilling.

Put Your Miles To Work

Anyone who has enough rewards points to book free travel around Thanksgiving or Christmas is probably going to do so. This isn’t an option for most people, as it takes a lot of spending to earn a yearly holiday flight. If you don’t have enough reward points to cover a roundtrip ticket in December, don’t give up hope - you might still be able to put your miles to use and save a little money.


First, don’t just search for two-way tickets.A lot of the best deals are going to come when you fly one airline to your destination, then let another company get you home. This has to do with all sorts of factors, including time zones, flight duration, airline hubs, etc.Sometimes I’ll see a great price on Southwest for flights on December 19, but the best deal on December 26 is a JetBlue redeye. Using services like OneTravel, Expedia and CheapOair can help you determine which airlines you should look at for which days. When it comes time to purchase, go to the airline website and avoid the third party fee.


Once you’ve split your travel bill in half,you can revisit using your earned mileage. You might not have enough rewards built up to pay for two plane rides, but it’s still possible you can cover one leg of the trip with your mileage. If the math works out, you could end up getting half-price flights each year, which would essentially make you cheap holiday travel royalty.


It’s also worth checking to see if your mileage program allows you to buy supplemental miles. I spent $200 on some extra miles one year, which seemed annoying at the time, but it allowed me to get plane tickets that would have cost over $1,000 otherwise. Anytime I can save $800 on a cross-country flight, I’m doing something right.

Start Planning Today

For anyone that was hoping I could offer a fool proof way to find cheap holiday travel, I apologize if I let you down. It costs a lot to traverse the globe during the holiday season, and there’s not much you can do about it.


However, you don’t have to accept bankruptcy as a byproduct of holiday travel. If you’re able to coordinate your dates, shop at a good time, and work out a strategy for covering the cost, booking a plane ride for Christmas or Thanksgiving becomes a lot more realistic. You might not be able to cheat the system, but a little planning can make a world of difference.  

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