It’s finally October, and you’re psyched about all things fall. Then it hits you: Christmas plane tickets aren’t bought, everyone and their mother is flying for Thanksgiving and god forbid you have to sleep on Mom's pullout couch because you forgot to book a hotel. The struggle is real. So here’s our early gift to you: a holiday travel survival guide. Happy hunting.
Disclaimer: The prices in this article were accurate at time of writing but are subject to availability.
Book Your Flight Now (and Don’t Look Back)
For people who need the window seat, a specific departure time or a nonstop flight, or who simply want to fly first class: book ASAP. According to the Orbitz Holiday Insider Index, the best time to buy tickets is during the week of October 5-12. (Thanksgiving fares are lowest on October 6, Christmas fares on October 9 and New Year's Eve fares on October 12.)
Tip: Airfare Watchdog is our go-to site for flight deal news.
Suck It Up and Fly on the Holiday
Flights will almost always be cheaper if you travel on the day of Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's. The silver lining? You'll avoid the chaotic crowds and still make it in time for dinner (which, let's be real, is the best part of the holidays anyway). In fact, if you depart on Thanksgiving Day, Kayak claims your flight will likely be 30 percent cheaper than the normal price. Also, check connecting flights instead of direct. Full disclosure: This can double the chance of a weather delay, but the seats will most likely be cheaper. And don't forget to pack a carry-on to avoid checked baggage fees and the stress of lost luggage.
Check Out Smaller Airports
You may have to drive a little farther to get to your parents' house, but you could save big on airfare by flying into a smaller airport. According to the 2015 Airport Affordability Report, it costs an additional $165 to fly into New York's JFK instead of LaGuardia Airport. Around San Francisco, you'll save $100 by landing at Oakland International Airport rather than SFO.
Leave It to the Last Minute
If you're super-spontaneous or a master procrastinator (or you cried at last month's holiday fares), don't lose hope. Prices tend to drop a few weeks before the holidays, so scour what's left — but remember you'll likely be sacrificing good seats and prime schedules for cheaper prices. Bonus: Hotel rates dip at the last minute too, and most offer a 24-hour cancellation period, so keep your eyes peeled for a chance to rebook at a better price.
Investigate Package Deals
We get it. Package deals always leave you asking, "What's the catch?," with their too-good-to-be-true fares. So we've done some digging for you, and here's what we found. In general, some packages offer cheaper flights than if you'd searched for airfare and lodging separately. For example, from New York City to Bora Bora for Thanksgiving costs $3,495, including round-trip flights and a stay at the Sofitel Bora Bora Marara Beach Resort. The same flight separately is $2,154 round-trip and the room is $1,995 — meaning the bundle would save a whopping $654. #worthit
Go to the City
Hotel demand in the U.S. is at an all-time high this year, and rates overall are up. Luckily, deals tend to appear when cities like Chicago, Washington DC, Boston and San Francisco become ghost towns over the holidays. DC's Embassy Row Hotel, for example, is offering 20 percent off, and Boston's Verb Hotel has 30 percent discounts. Even better, you'll be in a prime spot for shopping early Black Friday sales with the money you saved. Cha-ching!
Hit the Beach for Thanksgiving
Dreaming of sticking your feet in the sand instead of the snow? Book a warm weather escape to the Caribbean or Mexico over Thanksgiving instead of the week between Christmas and New Year's. A stay at Nonsuch Bay Resort in Antigua is $232 per night in a one-bedroom suite, whereas rates jump to $600 per night over Christmas and New Year's. At Banyan Tree Cabo Marqués, in Acapulco, it's $344 per night for a 2,000-square-foot ocean-view villa with a private pool. At Christmastime the same room skyrockets to $867, and $1,075 per night on New Year's. Your bank account will thank you.
Gas Up and Go
The golden rule here is never wait until last minute to rent your wheels. The earlier you book, the better deal you'll get. Follow car rental companies on Facebook and Twitter to find their latest discounts, or enroll in free member rewards programs, like Hertz Gold Plus, National Emerald Club or Enterprise Plus. If you're not afraid of a Trains, Planes and Automobiles situation, take a train to get you close to your destination and then drive a Zipcar to Grandma's house. Think about all that moola you'll be saving by paying hourly instead of 24-hour rental fees.