The sooner you secure your holiday travel plans, the more money you will save. However, if you haven't started planning yet, don't worry. There's still time to affordably make it home for the holidays.
Here are seven tips from experts to help you keep travel costs low this season.
Be flexible with travel dates and times. Holiday travel peaks one or two days before and after each holiday, so stay put during that time to take pressure off your wallet. Extending your trip or cutting it short may not be convenient, but it will likely be your most affordable option. This is especially true if you are flying, according to Matt Kepnes, travel enthusiast and author of the blog "Nomadic Matt: Travel Better, Cheaper, Longer." "One day could be the difference between a $200 fare or a $350 fare," he says. "Any flexibility you can have will only help."
To save even more, considering traveling on the actual holidays. "If you really need to see Grandma and she won't mind if you miss the first part of Thanksgiving dinner, you will definitely save money flying day-of," says Pauline Frommer, publisher of the travel guide website Frommers.com.
If nothing else, travel early in the morning or late at night. Early-bird and night-owl flights are often much cheaper and less congested than midday flights. There will also be significantly fewer people on the road during those times if you plan on driving.
Evaluate cost and value. Before booking a flight or hotel reservation, do extra research to make sure you are getting the most value for your money. For example, you may find a selection of affordable hotels online, but the prices you see might not include the total costs, like booking and service fees. Dig further to make sure such costs don't outweigh the value of the "deal." "You are going to want a hotel that offers free amenities like breakfast or Wi-Fi because in the end, all those additional costs will add up and negatively affect your overall travel budget," says Heather Hunter, AAA's public relations director.
Search for deals carefully. There are many ways to look for travel deals, but take caution when conducting your online searches. Since many websites base search results on your Internet activity, clear your computer's search history and remove any cookies attained by visiting travel sites before each new search to find the lowest and most current rates.
To broaden results, experts recommend using search engine sites instead of direct booking sites. Search engines provide a better representation of available fares, Frommer says. "These types of sites often don't receive kickbacks from major airlines for [listing] certain flights higher on the search result list than others like some booking sites do," she says.
If flying with a group, book tickets separately. Most travel booking and airline websites will show you the lowest price for only the exact number of seats you designated. That means if you are searching for four seats and there are only two seats available at the lowest price, the site will show you the lowest price for four seats together only, and disregard the two cheaper seats. "As a rule of thumb, it's best to search for no more than two seats at a time and go back and purchase more later," Frommer says. "This might seem time-consuming and you might not end up sitting with your whole traveling group, but you will likely save more money this way."
Consider taking a train or bus. If are traveling between bigger U.S. cities, train or bus travel may be a cheaper option with less hassle. The likelihood of finding affordable rates near the holidays with these alternative transportation methods is much greater, according to Kepnes. "With train travel, if you can book a couple weeks in advance, you will often qualify for early booking rates," he says. "And the average cost is about $15 to $20 for a one-way bus ticket if you book around a month in advance. So if you want a cheap bus fare for Christmas, book it now."
Passenger rail company Amtrak offers peak travel day discounts, additional lines and timetables to increase passenger capacity during the holidays. Other deals include 50 percent off kids' fares and discounts for eligible students and veterans. "Between cities like Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis and D.C., fares can vary from as low as $25 to about $80, which is far less than what you would pay for airfare between those destinations," says Matt Hardison, Amtrak's chief marketing and sales officer.
Drive slower and more carefully. If you are using a car to reach your holiday destination, plan your trip in advance to find the most fuel-efficient route. Utilize resources like the Federal Highway Administration's website to avoid construction and traffic congestion and increase overall gas mileage. Other tools, like AAA's Fuel Cost Calculator app, can track your fuel economy and locate the cheapest gas stations along the way.
[See: 10 Unexpected Costs of Driving.]
Driving the speed limit and storing luggage inside your vehicle will also save you money on gas. Finally, make sure your vehicle is in good condition before hitting the road to increase fuel economy and avoid costly breakdowns. "Give your car a good tune-up before leaving," Frommer says. "Something as simple as making sure you have fully inflated tires can give you better gas mileage."
Pack luggage strategically. If you found a good last-minute airfare deal, keep the savings rolling in by bringing as little luggage with you as possible. "Fit everything into a carry-on bag to avoid baggage fees and time wasted waiting at baggage claim," Kepnes says.
Not sure how to reduce what you pack? "Pack everything you think you need and then cut that amount in half," Kepnes says. "You never need as much as you think you will, and planning for all the what-ifs is expensive."