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Holiday Travel: Ways to Save Money—and Reduce Stress

Advice from an expert on how not to let crowds, delays, high prices and bad weather get you down

AH, THE HOLIDAYS! Delicious food, joyful family celebrations—and often jam-packed airports and highways to contend with. If you're one of the roughly 100 million Americans who will be traveling over the holidays, you could probably use all the advice you can get. We asked Heidi Mitchell, special correspondent for Travel + Leisure magazine, for some tips to help you make your holiday travel more enjoyable—and maybe even save a few dollars along the way.

Q. Are there ways to cut down on the cost of holiday travel?
A. Sure! Try going on a less-traveled day, like a Thursday instead of a Friday. A lot of the best fares are released on Tuesdays. Also, flying on the actual holiday can save you money. And leaving from a secondary airport can help—for instance, flying out of MacArthur Airport on Long Island instead of JFK, or if you're in Southern California, taking off from Long Beach instead of LAX. In some metropolitan areas, you may have a choice of airports.

Answered by:

Heidi Mitchell Headshot Image

Heidi Mitchell Special Correspondent
for Travel + Leisure magazine

If your budget permits, you can even sign up with a private-jet company or a consolidator that works with multiple private-jet companies. They'll alert you if there are any openings on a flight, and you can fly on one of their jets for less than you'd pay for a first-class ticket on a commercial airline.

Another strategy is to bundle. If you book your hotel with your airfare and your car, it's often hundreds if not thousands of dollars cheaper.

"If you book your hotel with your airfare and your car, it's often hundreds if not thousands of dollars cheaper."

Q. Is travel insurance worth it for a holiday trip?
A. It depends. Insurance can be helpful if you have a tricky itinerary or are traveling to an iffy destination with a potentially unstable political climate, or if you have an elderly family member who may become sick. But it can be pricey. If you are thinking about insurance, read the fine print, because often cancellations due to civil unrest or acts of God aren't covered. Or you can try to protect your trip in other ways. If you're going on a cruise, for instance, book your airfare through the cruise line, and they'll guarantee that you get on a ship even if your flight is canceled or delayed.

Q. What if a trip becomes more expensive than expected?
A. I understand how easy it is for costs to get out of hand—maybe you have to stay longer than you anticipated because of weather conditions. Or maybe meal prices are a lot higher than you thought they'd be. One trick I use is to estimate the cost of incidentals and then add 10% to that number. That way, I rarely get caught by surprise. If it's a specific additional expense, like an extra night at a hotel, you can often negotiate a lower price with the front desk.

Q. What's the best way to handle a delayed or canceled flight?
A. First of all, never take any sleeping medication until you're wheels up, because if you have to switch planes it can be really tricky.

Beyond that, the best strategy is to divide and conquer. Have one adult call the airline's toll-free number straightaway, while another waits in line at the help desk. You might try booking another flight yourself, but it's risky. Even though you'll get a refund on your canceled flight, the new one may be very expensive. The truth is, finding a seat for one person is not that difficult. It's harder when there's a group—then you just take what you can get.

"The foot massage at the airport spa is great for my sanity."

As for keeping everyone happy during a delay—well, our family throws the rules out the window: Ice cream for the kids is okay, and the foot massage at the airport spa is great for my sanity.

Q. Any final tips for surviving holiday travel?
A. My most important tip is this: Pack a good attitude. Travel is harder than it used to be, but unfamiliar places—and even airports—can be fun. Just remember that you're there together, creating the kind of holiday memories that will bring your family closer.

3 Questions to Ask Your Advisor

  1. What's a reasonable annual travel budget for me?
  2. How can I plan financially to host a trip for my whole family?
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