save money on holiday travelThe approaching holiday season doesn’t just mean elaborate meals and time with family — it also means a whole lot of travel. During the Christmas and New Year holidays, the amount of long distance travel in the US rises over 20%. Thanksgiving is an even more popular holiday, with long distance trips increasing an average 54% over a six-day period!

With so many people traveling, both prices and stress levels are likely to rise. If you’d like to get through the season with your sanity and bank account intact, be sure to follow these tips for smart holiday travel.

Book Tickets (Not Too Far) in Advance

In a recent study of flight booking trends, Kayak found that for travel around major holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year, the ideal time to book was 3-5 weeks in advance. Any later and you run into price hikes intended to catch desperate, last-minute travelers. However, booking too far in advance can also cost you — in some cases up to 20% more.

Fly on a Holiday

Most travelers want to reach their destination before the holidays actually begin, but if you’re willing to be the last one arriving to the family dinner you can find some great deals. Traveling on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, or New Year’s Eve can save you up to 20% on your airfare. You can make up the time on the back end of the holiday — most travelers head home within a day or two, so if you wait a little longer you can save another 20-30% on your return flight.

Look for Membership Discounts

From hotels and rental cars to train and bus tickets, it pays to be a member. Not just of the frequent travelers program — many other memberships can get you discounts on travel costs. If you have a student ID, are former or current military, belong to AARP, or are a AAA member, ask if there are any deals available. You can end up saving 5-20% on many services.

Check Multiple Flight Times

It can pay to be a little flexible when it comes to travel plans. Even if you think you know what day and time you want to arrive at your holiday destination, check a few other options. Most airlines will let you search within a six day range for both departures and arrivals, but don’t forget to look at departure times as well. You may find a significant difference between flights leaving only a few hours apart.

Stay at a Business Hotel

Fewer people travel for work during the holidays, so hotels that cater primarily to business travelers experience lower demand. Hotel chains like the Homewood Suites, Residence Inn, and Holiday Inn Express are more likely to offer discounts on rooms in order to attract leisure travelers in place of their more typical customers.

Fly Non-Stop

Booking a flight with a layover or two may seem like a good way to save money, but during the busy holiday season it can actually end up costing your more than a direct flight. Taking a non-stop flight doesn’t just mean that you spend less money on airport food; it also decreases the risk that your flight will be delayed or cancelled due to bad weather, or that you will be bumped from an overfull plane.

Delays usually mean extra costs in the form of meals, fees for rebooking, and sometimes even pricey airport hotels if the problem is due to weather. But when you skip the layover, you’re more likely to reach your destination on time and under budget.

Bring Your Own Snacks

The food at airports and highway rest stops is generally both very unhealthy and incredibly overpriced. You’ll do both your body and your wallet a favor if you bring snacks with you to eat during your travels. Stick with easy to manage finger food, like fruits and vegetables that are already washed and cut up, or food that can be eaten without utensils, like sandwiches and granola bars. If you are flying, be sure not to bring any liquids. Check federal regulations to find out what foods are prohibited.

Check Your Car Insurance

Rental car companies will always try to sell you as much coverage as possible, “just in case.” But in many instances it’s completely unnecessary. Most car insurance policies include coverage for domestic car rentals, and many credit card companies will add on extra insurance  if you use their card to pay for the rental. Before you buy extra insurance from your rental company, check your policy — you may already be completely covered.

Stick with a Carry On

The cost of checking luggage is high on regular travels days; around the holidays, it can climb even higher. You’ll avoid surprise fees if you stick to a carry-on bag that you know will fit in an overhead compartment. By carrying on your luggage, you also avoid the risk of it being lost, which happens more frequently during the high-volume travel periods of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Rent the Baby Equipment

Traveling with a baby can mean lots of extra supplies — which in turns means more and larger luggage. When you compare the cost of checking all those supplies — such as a pack-n-play, car seat, or stroller — it often ends up being cheaper to simply rent them when you arrive. Order a car seat along with your rental car; for other equipment, find a company that rents baby supplies near your destination. And for extra diapers and clothing, consider shipping them ahead — flat rate postage is almost always cheaper than checking baggage on a flight.

Consider Slower Transportation

Though slower transportation may seem like more of an inconvenience, in the long run it may actually be both more budget-friendly and less frustrating. If you are taking a one-hour flight, for example, not only will you have the high cost of a plane ticket, you’ll also need to spend several hours at the airport beforehand. Driving to your destination may end up being the same amount of travel time — or even less.

Or instead of flying, you may want to take the train. Since trains don’t have to worry about traffic, they take less time than driving while still costing significantly less than airline tickets.

***

Holiday travel doesn’t have to be stressful or expensive. With a little careful planning, you can enjoy vacation time with your family while staying calm, collected, and under budget.