Planning to travel over the holidays? Still haven’t made reservations? It’s not too late to find an affordable Thanksgiving or Christmas getaway. This procrastinator’s guide to holiday travel is for you.
GO WHERE THE DEALS ARE
If you want to take a vacation during the holidays, head to Europe.
"Europeans tend to stay at home for the Christmas holiday," said Gabe Saglie, a senior editor at Travelzoo. That means there are hotel deals to be had in popular destinations.
For example, in Paris at Le Meridien Etoile near the Champs-Elysees, rooms at Christmastime are $149 a night on Travelzoo.com and include an upgrade and a 20 percent discount on food. In Rome, at the Berg Luxury Hotel, near the Via Veneto, you can book a room on Travelzoo through Christmas Day for $126 a night for two-night stays (or $113 a night for three nights or more).
"The big secret for both Thanksgiving and Christmas is it is absolutely true that airfare is more expensive but hotels are a lot cheaper," said Sarah Gavin, a senior editor at Expedia.
Travelers who waited until December last year to book a hotel room saved about $60 a night compared with those who booked a room in August through October, according to research by Hipmunk.com.
Alas, flights to Europe from the United States are not as affordable. To compare fares, try Google Flight Search, which also tells you how much money you’ll save if, say, you depart a day earlier or fly to a different airport.
If you prefer to vacation domestically, visit a major business city like New York or Chicago. "Big urban destinations really rely on business travelers," Gavin said. And during the holidays leisure travelers can snap up great prices at the high-end hotels that usually cater to executives.
"Thanksgiving to Christmas can be a bargain proposition because the business traveler is not booking those hotels," Saglie said.
Travelers seeking warm weather may want to consider Las Vegas. New Year’s Eve will cost you, but there’s a sweet spot between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when rates drop. If you stay over Thanksgiving weekend, the nightly rate will surely jump, but the low cost of the days surrounding that could average out to an affordable week. "Rates will drop in Vegas one day to the next 60 to 70 percent," Saglie said.
To help you decide where and when to travel, use airline fare calendars. For instance, Southwest has a low-fare planning calendar at Southwest.com/flight/ shortcut/low-fare-search .html. Yet don’t get swept away.
"Just because it’s cheap airfare doesn’t mean it’s the most affordable flight," said Saglie. You have to factor in incidentals like the cost of checking bags. And multiple stops, which can make flights cheaper, but may also ruin a trip because you’re gambling with winter weather. Opt for southern connection points: Dallas, not Chicago. And be sure to leave plenty of time to make a connecting flight; in certain airports you may have to go through security upon landing.
TRAVEL ON ‘OFF’ DAYS
Airfares and hotel room rates are typically lower during the week. And fly early, when many families are home sleeping. "Take the 5:30 or 6 a.m. flight, because so many people are traveling with kids," Gavin said. "You can get much better deals on those flights than a 9 or 10 a.m. departure."
You can also get a deal by flying on a holiday. On Thanksgiving, fares can be 30 percent below average for domestic flights and 15 percent below average for international flights, according to research from Kayak.com. If you can’t do that, try traveling well in advance or after a holiday.
"The Monday before Thanksgiving will be cheaper than the Tuesday," Saglie said. Christmas is tricky. Instead of flying Dec. 21 (among the most expensive days), try Dec. 23, 24 or 25.
Airlines often have sales on Tuesdays. And last-minute bargains are not out of the question. For hotel rooms, try a last-minute booking app like Hotel Tonight. Such apps can save you 15 percent to 40 percent, said Gavin. If flights are not full in the days before Christmas, you might nab a deal on airfare, but be prepared to have a middle seat, a flight at the crack of dawn, or multiple stops.
FLY WHERE THERE’S COMPETITION
Airline competition is great for your wallet. From New York, for example, you’ll find good fares to Nashville, Las Vegas, Chicago and Los Angeles, according to Airfarewatchdog. The site recently found a nonstop, round-trip flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport to McCarran International in Las Vegas leaving Dec. 23 and returning on New Year’s Day for $344 on Delta.
"The regular, nonpeak rates are so low that the peak fares are reasonable, even for holiday travels," said George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com.
And keep an eye on Frontier Airlines. "Wherever Frontier competes with other airlines you’ll see some amazing fares," Hobica said. He recently found a $284 fare on Frontier from Chicago to Washington departing Nov. 26 and returning Nov. 29. On Kayak the cheapest fare he found was $712. In other words: Don’t forget low-cost carriers.
CHOOSE SMALLER AIRPORTS
At Christmastime last year the average ticket from Los Angeles International Airport to Kennedy International Airport was $565, according to analysts at Expedia. Alternatively, if you fly from Los Angeles International Airport to La Guardia Airport, the route is $492. Instead of flying to Reagan National Airport from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, fly into Baltimore and you’ll save about $100, according to Expedia. Or fly into Washington Dulles International Airport and save about $80.
Gavin estimates you generally save 10 percent to 20 percent on airfare when flying to and from big metro areas where you can choose between airports.
"Sometimes package deals are cheaper because they don’t have seven-day or 14-day advance purchase requirements on the airfare," Hobica said. He recalled a JetBlue hotel-and-flight package that was so affordable, it paid to buy it even though the traveler who purchased it used only the flight portion.
Gavin said the average savings for travel bundles is $540. For bundles with resort stays in places including Mexico and Las Vegas, it’s more like $800 to $1,200. One reason for the big discounts is that hotels can put their rooms on fire sale yet not reveal the nightly rate.
"They can give a really good discount and still protect that public pricing," Gavin said.
Saglie also likes bundling but advises travelers to research the hotel part.
"Just make sure that where the company is sending you," he said, "is a place you would have picked anyway."
By Stephanie Rosenbloom, New York Times