Holiday travel tends to be stressful, but this year, it may be even more financially so, thanks to inflation. According to a survey by Bankrate, only 43 percent of U.S. residents plan to travel for leisure purposes involving an overnight stay this holiday season. And of those who are traveling, 79 percent are modifying their travel plans due to inflation and rising prices.
The economy is affecting all travelers, regardless of demographic. Although everyone is on the hunt for cheap travel, millennial holiday travelers (40 percent) and Gen Xers (31 percent) seem the most concerned about the strain on their budgets.
Whether you’re a millennial trying to fly home for Christmas or a boomer hoping to take a Caribbean cruise, it is possible to travel affordably around the holidays, despite rising costs and inflation. From booking early and packing light to using your stash of points, here are six ways to save money on holiday travel this season.
1. Book early
While booking travel last minute may afford you solid deals come late January or early February, booking early is key to saving money on holiday flights and hotel stays.
Travel demand will only continue to rise as the holidays loom closer. Unfortunately, most travelers don’t have as much flexibility around these dates as they would on other, off-peak travel times. After all, if you want to arrive at grandma’s for turkey on Thanksgiving or to ring in the New Year, you’re held to a pretty specific timeline.
Bankrate senior industry analyst Ted Rossman says the best solution is to book early. “Airline fares are up 28 percent over the past year. I suggest making airplane and hotel reservations earlier than in previous years since demand will probably outpace supply. This summer, air travel was particularly messy as consumers unleashed pent-up demand and the industry couldn’t keep pace,” he said.
The chart below shows when travelers who require reservations are booking holiday travel. If you’ve waited until November, you’re already behind 53 percent of these travelers.
Note that 15 percent of these travelers weren’t sure when they would book their holiday travel. If this is you, we suggest making those reservations as soon as possible to travel cheaply.
2. Be flexible with your travel dates
As mentioned, traveling around the holidays doesn’t offer a vast amount of travel flexibility. But being open to tacking on a few extra days to a trip can make things much more affordable.
According to data from Hopper, flying on the Monday before Thanksgiving is the most affordable time to fly on these peak dates, returning the week after Thanksgiving. For Christmas, flying Monday, Dec. 19, or Tuesday, Dec. 20, can save you more than $100 on airfare. Flying on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day can sometimes offer savings, too, though you might miss out on some of the main holiday celebrations.
3. Use the right credit cards to book travel
Another easy way to save money on travel is to book using the right credit cards. You have two main options: cash back credit cards, where you get a percentage of your credit card purchases back in dollars, or travel rewards cards, where you can earn points and miles that you can later use to book travel.
Cash back credit cards
There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be getting cash back every time you spend. Certain cash back cards offer a flat percentage back on all purchases, like the Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card, which offers 2 percent cash back on every purchase.
Some cards offer even more cash back for spend within specific categories. For example, the Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card is a top pick for those that know they frequently spend on travel. It offers 5 percent cash back on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, an easy way to combat higher airfare and lodging costs.
With money-saving options such as these, it’s no wonder cash back is Americans’ favorite credit card feature.
Travel rewards credit cards
The best travel rewards credit cards can cut travel costs in several ways. Travel cards often come with money-saving perks, like a free checked bag on your flight or hotel elite status, which comes with benefits like dining credits or room upgrades.
Many cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve® or The Platinum Card® from American Express, come with airport lounge access, so you can relax, drink and dine in comfort at the airport before your flight. With annual fees over $500, these cards aren’t for shoestring budget travelers.
Most importantly, all travel rewards cards — whether they charge an annual fee or not — allow you to earn points or miles, which you can use to book flights and hotels. Many travel credit cards reward travel-related purchases at a boosted rate, so be sure to take advantage of that when booking flights and hotel stays this holiday season.
Depending on your spending habits, it may take a while to earn enough points for a free flight or hotel stay, but a sign-up bonus can expedite the process. Look for an achievable spending requirement and a sum of points or miles that get you where you want to go.
4. Use points and miles for booking airfare and hotels
Already have a stash of points or miles? The holidays are the perfect time to finally cash in. “Using credit card rewards, frequent flyer miles and hotel points can save you a lot of money. Many people have amassed a lot of these and haven’t traveled much during the past few years, so it’s a good time to cash them in. They won’t get more valuable over time,” Rossman explains.
In fact, your stash of points and miles is most valuable when cash rates are high — like during peak holiday travel season. Whether you’ve earned your points and miles from credit cards, shopping portals or flying, using them to travel for free, especially when it’s expensive to fly or stay, can save you from forking over your hard-earned cash. Our holiday travel survey found that 21 percent of travelers plan to pay for travel using reward points — so why not be one of them?
5. Travel light
Traveling light is one of the simplest ways to avoid paying pesky luggage fees. Considering airlines charge around $35 per flight for each checked bag on average, packing everything in your carry-on is the most affordable option. Just make sure your chosen airline doesn’t charge for a carry-on bag.
If your massive bag filled with Christmas gifts (or all your holiday outfits) is just too big to take on board, you could consider shipping it to your destination. For example, shipping a medium-sized bag from New York to Minneapolis just before the holidays starts at $35 with one service.
Don’t forget that if all else fails, you could consider opening a co-branded airline credit card that offers a free checked bag on flights.
6. Consider alternate means of transportation
This season, 68 percent of holiday travelers will travel by car and 33 percent by plane. Flying and driving are the most popular travel methods, but with the ever-rising cost of airfare (up 28 percent from 2021, according to the Consumer Price Index data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and gas (up 26 percent from 2021), you might want to consider an alternative plan, like taking the train.
A modest 13 percent of those traveling for the holidays said they’ll be going by train and 11 percent by boat or cruise. Choosing the train over flying may have some unexpected perks, however. Many children love trains, so it may be a less stressful alternative for families. And when you factor in how much time you spend at the airport to get through security, traveling via train may even save you some time.
And most importantly, taking the train can be cheaper. For example, you can get a train ticket from Boston to New York via WanderU for just $31. If you opted to fly, you’d pay closer to $100.
The bottom line
Holiday travel doesn’t have to break the bank. Although things like inflation and pricey holiday airfare and hotels are changing the way we travel around these peak dates, it’s possible to save money by booking travel soon, staying flexible on your travel dates and using your points and miles. If all else fails, consider a cash back credit card to book those expensive flights and hotels, giving you a little extra back to spend on holiday shopping and gifts.
Bankrate.com commissioned YouGov Plc to conduct a survey on holiday travel. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. The total sample size was 2,455 adults, including 1,055 who anticipate traveling for the holidays and 829 who require travel reservations. Fieldwork was undertaken between Sept. 7-9, 2022. The survey was carried out online and meets rigorous quality standards. It employed a nonprobability-based sample using quotas upfront during collection and then a weighting scheme on the back end designed and proven to provide nationally representative results.