How to score the best deals on last-minute holiday travel
Be creative and flexible when it comes to booking your trip – and don't forget to take advantage of card rewards and loyalty programs
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The winter holidays are only weeks away when suddenly your mother calls, and demands you come home for Thanksgiving. Or your boyfriend wants to skip all the family drama and jet out of town for Christmas. You want to oblige, but fear you can’t afford the typically high cost of last-minute travel.
It’s true that many airplane fares and hotel rooms go for premium prices as travel dates get closer. But there are some work-arounds if you’re determined and, particularly, if you have some flexibility.
“Try to be open-minded when booking travel, and don’t get attached to one specific travel date and location,” said Scott Wainner, CEO of Fareness, a flight comparison app. “Look around at prices, and then determine when and where you might want to travel to.”
Last-minute holiday travel: Everything you should know
Where will you go?
If you're looking for the best deals, think international.
“If there’s a foreign country you’ve wanted to cross off your bucket list, lower fares make the holidays an ideal time to do it,” said Tracy Stewart, fare expert at Airfarewatchdog.com.
Travel blogger Suzanne Wolko decided last year to go to London for New Year’s Eve. She booked her tickets Dec. 7, used points to upgrade, flew out of her hometown of Philadelphia Dec. 29 and came home Jan. 6.
“Hotels in London during the first week of January are very cheap as business travel hasn’t returned yet,” said Wolko, who blogs at PhilaTravelGirl.
In fact, this is a great time to fly business class at an affordable price, Stewart said, as many carriers will offer discounted rates to help fill those seats.
See related: Should I use my points to upgrade my seats?
Where will you land?
Try using airport groupings rather than specific airports, said Kyle Stewart, who blogs at Live And Let’s Fly.
For New York, that would mean considering JFK, Newark, La Guardia and even White Plains. If you’re willing to go farther afield, try flying in and out of nearby metro areas if the fares are cheaper.
The last time Stewart went to Miami, he actually flew into Fort Lauderdale, he said. It took him twice as long to get to his hotel – a 40-minute drive as opposed to a 20-minute one from the Miami airport – but it only cost half as much. “I will happily drive 20 minutes to save 50 percent on airfare,” he said.
Also, be aware that the price of a route is as much about airline competition as it is about distance.
For instance, on the travel site Expedia in September, a traveler could book a roundtrip flight from Los Angeles to New York City on JetBlue, leaving Dec. 23 and returning Dec. 30, for about $500.
But if that same traveler wanted to fly JetBlue in and out of Syracuse, New York, on the same dates, it would cost about $650.
“Airlines price for market pairs, not flights,” Stewart said. “If there is little competition on a route, they will price it very high.”
When will you go?
Some days and times are cheaper to travel than others.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday are the cheapest days to fly, said Carol Mueller, vice president of marketing for Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, and very early and very late flights are cheaper than ones that take off at 10 a.m.
As a bonus, Mueller noted, the first flights of the day tend to have the least issues with delays.
The days to avoid, at least if you’re trying to save money, are the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after, said Sara Skirboll, spokeswoman for the coupon site RetailMeNot.
Try instead flying on Thanksgiving day itself, or the Saturday or Wednesday after the holiday.
If your dates are very flexible, take your vacation in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, she said. Most people aren’t traveling for leisure or business during that period. The peak low-fare travel dates are Dec. 1-10, she said.
See related: How to give the gift of travel
Nonstop versus connecting flights
One good snowstorm at your connection city can leave you stranded in an airport lounge while your siblings are back at the homestead, singing carols without you. “Better to splurge on the nonstop,” he said.
Where will you stay?
There are all kinds of last-minute booking apps, but if the internet fails to land you the price you want, consider calling the hotel directly.
“Haggling with hotels is a great way to get better discounts,” Skirboll said. Ask if they have specials for different rooms, or if you can get free parking thrown in, she said.
Remember, if they have an empty room, they may want to cut deals.
Some hotels may not show availability online, mainly because a last-minute cancellation has not yet been logged in the system. “It happens more often than you would expect,” said JP Toscano, CEO of travel site Jubel.
You can also take the chance of just showing up at the front desk and hoping there’s a room. This is more likely to work with hostels and less popular hotels, Toscano said.
See related: 7 hotel rewards mistakes you should avoid
What about rewards points?
There may be no such thing as an affordable, last-minute flight across the country at Thanksgiving. However, “airlines frequently release empty seats for award flights a day or two before the flight,” said Patti Reddi, founder of The Savvy Globetrotter website.
The same can be true for hotel rooms as well, said David Bakke, who blogs at Money Crashers.
What are the latest changes on the travel rewards cards scene?
There are three rewards program updates to consider this holiday season:
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card holders can now get 10 miles per dollar on hotel rooms booked and paid through hotels.com/venture.
- Marriott, SPG and Ritz-Carlton have merged their rewards programs. The big beneficiaries here are Marriott Rewards members who hold a large number of points and can now use them on Starwood’s elite properties, Stewart said. There’s not as much in here for loyal SPG guests, as theirs was a premium line and Marriott has a less premium focus, he said.
- Chase Ultimate Rewards has revamped its booking site. Now powered by Expedia, the portal has brought down costs per point and increased value, Stewart said.
Where can you start looking for deals now?
Click on the links of sites already mentioned above. Also, check out these sites:
- GoLastMinute: Search last-minute deals to travel within the next 30 days.
- HotelTonight: Find last-minute hotel deals, either for tonight or as far as 100 days out.
- Google Flights: Find deals on flights both to your desired destination and alternative routes which might offer better options.
- CruiseSheet: Find last-minute deals on cruises departing from any port or region around the world.
Also, don’t forget to check out last-minute fares through your rewards card’s travel portal and any hotel loyalty and frequent flyer programs' websites you may belong to.
Our guides can help you get the most of your points and miles:
- American Express Membership Rewards guide
- American Airlines AAdvantage guide
- Chase Ultimate Rewards guide
- Citi ThankYou guide
- Delta SkyMiles guide
- Hilton Honors guide
- Marriott Rewards guide
- Southwest Rapid Rewards guide
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