Travel Like a Pro This Holiday Season

Goodbye 2013 Holidays!

The holiday travel season is over. Are you relieved or saddened? Happy you don’t have to be on a plane for a long time or wishing you could be back on that family car trip again? Do you wish you had more time with family or more time at home? In the words of my Dad, “For better or worse, it’s over.” Although he was talking about the school semester, I think this phrase applies here as well. So what have we gained besides pounds, presents, and play? What can we learn about holiday travel from this year’s experiences?

Prices and Timing

Every year the most traveled days during the winter holiday season are December 22nd and 29th. Millions fly in and out, drive to and from, and say hello and goodbye on these two dates. If you’re the average traveler, you’ll end up paying more in ticket prices, hotels, and rental cars during these days because of the excess holiday travel. But if you’re a smart traveler, you’ll save as much as you can by booking early and comparing prices.

One of my top ways to save money on ticket prices and travel during the holidays is to plan early. Since I leave on almost the exact same dates every year, I know many months in advance when I’ll be flying. If you are not sure when you’ll be leaving, try to confirm plans as early as possible and make sure to check flight times and dates daily. I like to start checking flight times and dates up to six months before I leave for the Christmas holiday. For example, this year I started looking at flight times and costs in June.

I found that prices from early June to mid September are about $2-300 more than booking from the end of September to the end of October. I also noticed from the week of Halloween on through my date of departure the rates climbed steadily to $2-400 more than the butter zone of late September/early October. For a first time or inexperienced traveler, always make sure to book your flights early to ensure you get the best rates and times.

I read an article earlier this year (see article here), which I found extremely enlightening. Kayak, my favorite travel site, published plane ticket price data and other useful information alongside Expedia analysts data. Another article I read mentioned that the lowest prices can be seen 21 days before your scheduled departure; however, I found this to be misleading. Yes, I did see that I could find the lowest prices 21 days before I flew out, but these were only on overnight flights where I traveled for 12+ hours after taking the red eye. The typical daylight hour flights were about $30-50 more but I thought it was worth it to travel for less time and not having to sleep on the plane overnight.

The important factors to take away here are to solidify your holiday travel plans as soon as possible, make reservations at the end of September/early October (ideally during the middle week of October), and make sure you’re getting the best rate at the best time; saving money can come at a price and that may be your good night’s sleep. Waiting until the last minute will raise your plane ticket as much as $400-600 above the September/October prices and can eliminate ideal flying times.

Packing

Ah, my favorite sport: the holiday shove and stuff. I used to be one of those serial over-packers. You know the ones at the airport that always end up paying extra fees for their overweight bags. But I have learned my lesson! I now believe in packing light. I don’t need four hoodies, three sweaters, four cardigans, nine t-shirts, and twenty pairs of socks for an eight day trip and you probably don’t either. Think about what you really need to get through the holidays.

If your family consistently goes out to a formal dinner on Christmas Eve, pack one set of nice clothes; you’re not going to do an outfit change at the restaurant. If your family is more casual and frequents the movies on Christmas Day, then t-shirts and two hoodies is probably appropriate. I like to travel in sweatpants, a t-shirt, a hoodie, and sneakers, but I understand that others prefer to be fashionable even on a five-hour flight. Make sure you’re comfortable in whatever you’re wearing.

By stuffing your suitcase to the brim, taking as many carry-ons full of toiletries and clothes as you can manage, and paying the $90 extra on top of the $25 bag fee because your suitcase is over 60 lbs is really not worth all the stress and braun it takes to carry those items around. Holidays can be stressful enough so don’t bog down your wallet and muscles by worrying about how many pairs of shoes you need.

My family typically gives me gifts to open on Christmas instead of shipping them to my house and I always bring gifts for my family to open in my suitcase. This is another important piece to remember. If you have to bring gifts to and from your destination, you need room to pack them in your suitcase. Shipping gifts even short distances can become expensive if you haven’t allowed room in your bag. Always give yourself some leeway incase you end up taking home a huge cast iron pan, iron, or new jacket.

Important piece to remember: Cut down on excess time wherever you can. If you can pack the car the night before with suitcases for a car trip, bus ride, or flight, do it. You’ll thank yourself later for saving time before your early morning departure.

Traffic

Ok, you’ve booked your trip, got the exact times and prices you wanted, packed your suitcase to allow for gift giving and receiving, and now the day to leave for your flight, car ride, or bus trip has come. What do you do about all that inevitable traffic?

The Bus: Arrive early enough that you have time to relax in case something goes wrong and you have to wait in line for over an hour to reschedule your ticket or pay a fee or the time the bus leaves has changed. My Dad took a bus trip from Roanoke to Richmond and without an email or a call, the bus company changed his departure time from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. The bus station wasn’t even open until 6:30 a.m. because the staff knew the bus departure time had changed. Unfortunately, this left my Dad sitting out in the cold for quite a long time. It’s a good idea to bring warm clothes with you wherever you travel incase you too get left outside.

The Car: There will always be local traffic on Christmas and Thanksgiving Day. People will be driving to visit local relatives and the highways and crossroads will be stuffed to the gills. If you can manage to avoid driving on these days, it’s too your benefit. If you’re driving to visit family for a few days surrounding these Holidays, make sure you leave early enough in the morning. I’ve been driving to Virginia and Long Island my entire life for the Holidays and I can tell you just a few hours leaves you in devastatingly long, 3-hour traffic. Leaving early in the morning can help assuage midday traffic and traffic around highly populated areas. If you’re driving on a work day, avoid 7-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. where the traffic will certainly be heavy. Prefer leaving later in the day? This could also be an advantage. Missing the morning traffic and night traffic by arriving after it’s over will save on driving time. Make sure you check your route throughout your trip by either smart phone GPS or portable GPS to avoid as much traffic and save as much time as possible.

The Plane: Most people will be traveling by aircraft to their family-friendly destination. During this particular holiday season, I received many daily emails from U.S. Airways and United reminding me to check-in online 24 hours before my flight and arriving at the airport two hours before my scheduled departure time. They also mentioned they may give my seat away. I recommend agreeing with the emails and arriving two hours before your flight.

Even though I checked-in online 24 hours before, I still needed to check my bag and print my boarding passes. I stood in line for an hour and fifteen minutes at 4 a.m. and barely made my flight out of Arizona. I got there about two hours before take off and there was an entire girls basketball team and a huge travel group gaggle that took up the entire waiting area. You never know what you’ll find at the airport and if you’re standing in line waiting to check in while your flight is boarding, they will not hold the plane for you.

Similarly, I arrived two hours before my flight out of Virginia and found out the airport didn’t open until 4:15 a.m. and my flight was at 5:15 a.m. This was a happy coincidence because I got to sit and talk to my Dad in the airport, but quickly after 4:15 came, the lines started piling up. Had I not walked downstairs at 4:20, I could have waited in line for an hour again and missed my flight. Even if you think you’ll be able to skip through the electronic check-in, skirt security, and run to your gate for boarding, taking the risk by arriving with less than two hours time can result in a missed flight and less time with your loved ones.

As mentioned earlier, during the holiday season, airlines refuse to hold flights. If they hold it for you, someone who has made the flight on-time, may miss their connection. During the holidays follow the military slogan: If you’re late, don’t bother coming, if you’re on-time, you’re late, if you’re early, you’re on-time.

So What Have We Learned?

Let’s sum up the most important lessons here:

  • Solidify travel plans with family (late summer or early fall)
  • Research best flight/bus times and prices (usually late September/early October, utilize online resources such as Kayak, Expedia, Travelocity, etc.)
  • Book holiday travel (tickets, rental car, hotel) (usually late September/early October and utilize above online resources)
  • Pack reasonably and avoid extra baggage fees. You may find yourself bringing back more gifts than you thought.
  • Pack the car the night before to cut down on morning readiness time.
  • Avoid heavy traffic by leaving earlier or later than typical traffic.
  • Check-in online 24 hours before your flight to secure your seat.
  • Avoid long lines and security back-up by arriving at least two hours before your flight.
  • Check your bag, print your boarding passes, and take a seat at your gate.
  • Relax! You’ve done the best you can to avoid traffic, lines, headaches, extra costs, overnight flights, and heavy baggage. Grab a breakfast muffin and water and have a great start to your holidays!