8 Tips to Save Money on Holiday Travel

in Financial Planning by

  • 98.6 million Americans travelled over 50 miles last holiday season.
  • Save on flights by booking off-peak dates or just drive if you can.
  • Try using credit card rewards to help out your wallet.

A record 98.6 million Americans traveled over 50 miles away from home during last year’s holiday season. That figure represents a 4% increase in travel over the previous year’s holiday season, which could be the result of lower gas prices throughout the country.

While traveling to see family at Thanksgiving and Christmas can be a blast, it wreaks havoc on the annual family budget. And with holiday costs eating up most of our expendable income in November and December, the prospect of paying for gas, hotel stays, and food on the road can be a money-conscious family’s worst nightmare.

8 Tips To Get To Grandma’s On A Budget

We all know how important holiday travel can be to tight knit families, and travel isn’t always optional. Nearly everyone has at least one family member who insists everyone drive 14 hours to enjoy their version of the holidays – whether we want to or not.

And with families increasingly spread out over the country, the burden of travel falls heavily on those who live the furthest away. If you’re on the traveling end of your family’s get-together this year, consider these ways to save big on the journey.

1. Drive If You Can

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 91% of holiday travel is done by car. With the average domestic plane ticket coming in at around $377 in 2014, a family of four would need to spend $1,508 to fly to their holiday destination – and that doesn’t even include incidentals like food at the airport, checked baggage fees, or airport parking.
If you have a reliable car, driving can save you a bundle. And since you’ll already have your car, you won’t have to rent one when you arrive at your final destination, either.

2. Be Flexible With Dates

If you’re flying around the holidays, it can pay to be flexible on travel dates. Not only should you try to avoid flying right before and a few days after the main holidays, but you’ll also want to explore off-peak, mid-week pricing.

The most economical days to fly are almost always Tuesdays and Wednesdays. However, you should also check fare prices for the week before and after your ideal travel dates just in case. If you’re willing to celebrate Christmas early – or slightly late – you could save a lot of money on both airfare and hotel peak rates.

3. Avoid Optional Airport And Flight Fees

While the cost of airfare is an important consideration, it isn’t the only expense to evaluate. Based on the airline, you may need to pony up a pretty penny for checked baggage and seat changes. And depending on your home airport, you might need to pay a daily charge for parking, or for other taxes and fees for airport use.

While many of these costs are unavoidable, figuring out what they are ahead of time will help you plan. You can also use these factors to weigh the costs of several options. For example, when you fly with Southwest Airlines, your first two checked bags fly free. If prices were similar between Southwest and another airline, you might be better off avoiding the cost of checked bags and going with Southwest. And with pricey airport parking, it often makes to Uber or take a cab instead of driving and parking yourself.

4. Take The Early (Or Late) Flight

Just like flying on off-peak days can save you money, flying at strange and undesirable times saves money, too. If you want to get the best deal, you should consider taking the first flight at 6am or last red-eye flight of the day. As an added bonus, you’ll avoid the biggest crowds when you fly really early or really late.

5. Use Credit Card Rewards

Rewards credit cards offer incentives that make travel much more affordable around the holidays. By earning airline miles, hotel loyalty points, or simple cash-back, you can save considerably on travel without too much effort on your part.

Your credit card rewards strategy will depend a lot on where you live and where you’re going. If you’re flying at the holidays, focusing on accruing airline miles or flexible rewards points might be your best bet. Likewise, if you plan on driving over the holidays, it’s wise to focus your efforts on cash-back that can be used to gas up the car and pay for incidentals.

6. Shop Around For Deals (And Bundle Them)

If your travel plans include flights and hotels, you can secure deep discounts by bundling your travel purchases through a discount site like Expedia, Orbitz, or Travelocity. Meanwhile, another site, Kayak.com, will help you compare prices for the same trip between all of the travel aggregators out there.

Before you book, make sure to compare prices for each component of your trip if booked individually or with a discount site like Expedia. And when you find an awesome deal, be ready to pounce! Remember, online pricing can change at the drop of a hat, and just because a deal is there now, doesn’t mean it will be there later.

Related: Top 10 Tips To Save On Travel with Kids

7. Consider Alternate Airports

If you live near more than one airport, you’re in luck. Since pricing varies wildly from hub to hub, you can save a load of cash just by checking prices based on date, time, and airport of choice.

Even if you have to drive further to get to another airport, the savings are well worth it if you’re buying more than one plane ticket. Regardless, running the numbers is always a smart idea.

8. Use Public Transportation

If you’re not in a huge hurry to arrive at grandma’s house, you consider using public transportation. It may not be quite as comfortable as driving yourself, and not nearly as convenient, but it’s got plenty of savings potential.

A coach seat on Amtrak from Chicago to New York, for example, costs just $83 for the week of Christmas. Meanwhile, a Greyhound bus ticket from Chicago to Los Angeles costs just $107.50 as of this writing thanks to a web-only sale. No matter where you’re going – and where you’re coming from – it’s possible to save money and avoid the headache of driving or flying.

The Bottom Line

Traveling during the holidays can be a double-whammy for your budget. Not only do you have to splurge for gifts galore, but you also have to pay for the cost of traveling to see your loved ones up close and personal.

Fortunately, there are a slew of ways to save on those holiday adventures, and that’s true whether you’re driving, flying, or using public transportation. The holidays are a magical time, but they’re much more rewarding if spent with the people you love.

If you truly want to save, the time to start planning is now.

How are you saving on travel this holiday season? Or, are you skipping it altogether?

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Holly Johnson

Holly Johnson is a financial expert and award-winning writer whose obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel plays a central role in her work. In addition to serving as Contributing Editor for The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for inspiring publications such as U.S. News and World Report Travel, Personal Capital, Lending Tree, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns two websites of her own - Club Thrifty and Travel Blue Book. You can follow her on Twitter or Pinterest @ClubThrifty.


  1. Mary Ellen Olbrisch

    Time is valuable , so be sure that four days on the road is worth the savings and the wear and tear on your vehicle. I find driving long distance very stressful but I’m willing to spend a couple of hours driving to an airport where I get a much better deal and even do well with an overnight park and stay package at a hotel near the airport. There is always a chance the ticket I want close to home will go on sale right before I travel, but can’t count on that.

    • Anonymous

      I would not take a bus from Chicago to LA, that’s 2-3 days (one way) spent on the road instead of being with family. Not to mention most people don’t even get that many days off work around the holidays.

      • Holly Johnson

        It’s definitely not something I would do, but I know people who have/still do. You’re right, though. Time constraints would make it impossible for people who worked in regular 9-5 jobs with little vacation.

  2. Bennett Fischer

    My wife and I are going on vacation next week, and we want to make sure we save as much as we can. That being said, I really appreciate you giving me some insight about this and letting me know how we can best save some money while traveling during this time of year. I’ll be sure to follow your insight and see how much we can save. Thanks a ton for this.

    • Holly Johnson

      I hope you have a great vacation!

  3. Drew

    Good advice for planning a vacation within budget. I really like these ideas and I can’t wait to test them out.


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