Start Planning NOW for Holiday Travel: Expert and Budget Info

Picture of a Christmas tree at Reagan National Airport

The 2013 holiday season is rapidly approaching, and if you haven’t yet planned your travel arrangements, it’s time to get started. Below, find expert tips and tricks to getting where you want to go with the least amount of pain (in your budget and in your stress level). 


As a general rule, it’s best to book airfare no later than two months before your travel dates to get the best fares. (Chris Erskine of the Los Angeles Times recommends even earlier, from seven weeks before you plan to travel.) So while it’s too late for Thanksgiving, you can still snag a decent fare for travel around the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

Christmas and New Year’s Day both fall on Wednesdays this season, and I anticipate most Americans will travel on the weekends before and after. Airfares certainly bear out this prediction: I priced out sample fares in December between Boston and Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, and Dallas and Atlanta using Kayak‘s flexible-date search, and found the weekends before and after Christmas were the highest of the month. Christmas Eve and the day after Christmas were also pretty high. The middle ground, price-wise, was traveling on Christmas Day itself. If you’re willing to fly on the holiday (with the caveat that winter weather may snarl your plans), you may be able to save money.


Hotels take decidedly different approaches for Christmas versus New Year’s.


With Christmas, keep the following in mind when researching hotels:

  • Cities tend to clear out (with the exception of New York City), as many head to family homesteads for the holiday. If you’re looking for a city hotel, you’ll likely be able to find a competitive rate. For example, I found three-star hotels from $76 per night in downtown Dallas, $77 in midtown Atlanta, and $86 in Los Angeles (Hollywood) on Expedia, based on a three-night stay over the Christmas holiday.
  • Resorts tend to get booked early for destination celebrations. If you were hoping to head somewhere tropical or ski-oriented over the December holidays, you’d be best served by searching for a last-minute deal.

New Year’s Eve

For New Year’s, take the opposite approach to Christmas: Cities will get booked earliest and be the most expensive. This is especially true for cities known for nightlife (and New Year’s traditions) such as New York, Miami, and Las Vegas. Consider these cost-saving tips:

  • Celebrate in a wintry city. While demand may still be high, you won’t necessarily have overwhelming crowds. (New York City, as always, is the exception.) A few years ago, I had a fantastic (and affordable) New Year’s Eve in Montreal; Boston, Chicago, and Pittsburgh also pack their calendars with events, indoors and out, for revelers of all stripes. If you don’t mind a little cold weather, these cities (and others) are worth checking out for New Year’s.
  • Head to the countryside. While partygoers head back to the city, take a different approach and have a quiet, contemplative New Year’s Eve off the grid. Small-town inns, countryside bed and breakfasts, and mountainside cabins often have decent rates this time of year. (Note that ski areas will still be expensive, however.) If you’re not a nightlife type of traveler, this option is a nice alternative.

Rental Cars

As with airfare, you’ll want to book your rental car as early as possible to avoid limited inventory and gouged prices. Compare per-day prices over several days so you can determine what the going rates are by model and vendor. I like checking rental car rates on sites such as Hotwire and Priceline, then comparing what they have against the actual rental car company’s website itself. If you have flexibility in your itinerary, check a few different pick-up and drop-off dates to determine the best price. Additionally, compare pick-up locations: You may find it’s cheaper to rent from an agency’s neighborhood location rather than from its airport pick-up.

Finally, take fuel into account when comparing models: You might see a good deal on an SUV rental, for example, but those savings will be eliminated because you’ll have to refuel more than if you rented a sedan. Use AAA’s Fuel Cost Calculator to get ballpark estimates of what you’ll spend on gas, by car make/model, around the country.

Image courtesy jjgardner3 via Flickr Creative Commons

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