Financial Goals

Budget Holiday Travel: Plan Ahead and Keep Your Sanity

photo: brunosan

Book Now! That is the advice coming from the travel industry, aimed squarely at holiday travelers. Last year, travelers could wait until the last minute to book screaming deals; this year is a whole different ball game. Airlines are offering fewer flights to and from fewer destinations, so the best prices can be snatched far in advance. And while hotels are open to negotiating price, earlier is better.

Flights

Use Kayak or another travel search engine to check prices for your destination, along a spectrum of dates and with a couple different departure and arrival options. For example, if you are flying to San Francisco, be sure to check out Oakland and San Jose for (possibly) less-expensive flights. Flying during peak travel days (usually two days before or two days after a holiday), can add as much as $30 in surcharges, each way, so avoid those dates if possible. Taking the first flight out on a weekday is often the least expensive; chose a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday flight to save more.

Arrange transportation to the airport in advance, and consider public transportation options in your plan. Having a friend drop you at the departure level can save you lots of parking stress and shuttle bus nightmares. If you do need to park your car near the airport, call ahead and reserve a space – Thanksgiving and Christmas travel fill those off-airport parking lots quickly.

Prepare for weather and maintenance delays by packing reading material, airport security-friendly snacks, a deck of cards and dice. If you plan on toting your favorite electronic device, don’t forget the power cords and use the waiting time at the departure gate to recharge batteries before a flight. And if you are stranded overnight because of weather, be sure to carry your airlines 1-800 number for assistance in rebooking.

Lodging

The cheapest option might be to stay with your Aunt Sally, but if all three of her kids and their spouses, plus Uncle Ken’s long lost relatives from overseas are visiting, your best bet, sanity-wise, might be an inexpensive hotel nearby. Check out deals through Hotwire and Priceline, or call the hotel and negotiate directly. Ask Aunt Sally to check with her neighbors, a housesitting opportunity might present itself. Or check out youth hostels in the area – Las Vegas has a great one right on the strip!

Meals

Arthur Frommer, the renowned budget traveler, suggests eating at least one meal a day picnic-style while traveling. Pick up a great lunch at a weekly farmer’s market, or plan to spend the evening in your hotel after a day of sightseeing with a bowl of soup from the prepared foods counter of a nearby grocery store. When you go out for a meal, consider sharing or splitting your entree with your travel companion. Not only do you get to try more items on the menu, you also save room for an afternoon treat!

Some hotels and resorts offer dining plans, where you basically prepay your meals — but that may not be the most budget-friendly dining strategy for your vacation. Weigh all options carefully before you choose.

Entertainment

Visiting New York during the holidays is magical, with the tree in Rockefeller Plaza and lights in Central Park. And if you do visit, seeing a Broadway show is part of the magic – if it wasn’t so expensive. One way to do it without breaking the bank is to check out TKTS Discount Booths for same-day tickets. This trick also applies to most major cities, including London (TKTS London), San Francisco (Theatre Bay Area) and Chicago (Goldstar partnership).

And if you’re able to plan a visit to New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago really far in advance, try to get tickets to your favorite television shows: most of them are free! (For specifics, check each show’s website: many shows require that you mail or call in advance with your name and address, and select visitors through a lottery drawing. But some work on a first-come first-served basis, and many offer day-of tickets if you’re willing to spend several hours in line at the show’s filming location.)

Local universities, churches and community centers also offer holiday programs, often free or at a very reasonable price.