Family travel is shaping up to be expensive during this year's holiday season, so if you haven't made your plans - do it now. Family vacation shoppers are likely to find high airfare prices to warm weather spots, leading parents to seek out driving destinations for family travel this year. The good news: there are still some good resort and ski bargains out there for family holiday vacations if you book soon.
The number of available seats on both U.S. and international flights is down considerably this year, contributing to expensive airline ticket prices. If you're planning to take the family to visit Grandma, ski the slopes, head to Walt Disney World, or bask in the Caribbean sun for the holidays, here are some tips to help you get the best deal:
1. Pick the right dates. According to Farecast.com, choosing the right return dates could yield significantly lower rates for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Try to extend your holiday to Monday or Tuesday and return on Friday or after the traditional Thanksgiving holiday weekend. For December travel, traveling on Christmas Day and New Year's Day will help you save a bundle. If you cannot be flexible, try to travel at off-peak times such as early morning, late at night, or red-eye overnight flights. Farecast's air predictions and flexible travel tools can help you find lower fares. Expedia's Fare Compare calendar may be able to help you find out which dates are best. Farecast's site will also provide you with e-mail alerts and free airfare predictions for your holiday travel dates. Also, make sure to investigate which dates are considered "peak holiday" periods for resorts. For the December holidays, for example, some resorts' peak holiday periods start on December 20 and end on January 3, while other hotels and resorts consider only December 22 to January 1 to be the peak holiday season when determining rates.
2. Be flexible. The more flexibility you have in your holiday travel, the lower your costs will be. This includes flexibility in dates and times of travel, airports, destination, and mode of travel. Use a flexible fare search such as those provided by Orbitz or Kayak. Make sure to look at flights from alternative airports, since prices can vary widely. Sometimes the savings generated can amount to hundreds of dollars per ticket, especially during the holiday season. In addition, if airfares are too high, consider other options such as trains, buses and cars. One more hint, if you don't absolutely have to travel during the holidays, think about waiting until the first half of December or early January. While everyone is drawn to a holiday vacation, prices will be considerably lower during off-peak times, allowing you to get much more for your travel dollar.
3. Buy your tickets at the optimal time. The best itineraries and availability are usually obtained by shopping early, especially this year. Make sure to sign up for airline and website newsletters, such as www.airfarewatchdog.com and fare alerts from sites like Farecast.com, so you'll be aware of new low rates and sales.
4. Shop extensively and decisively. According to travel experts, two of the biggest mistakes holiday travel shoppers make are failing to research their options as widely as possible and not snapping up a good deal as soon as they see one. Avoiding these pitfalls depends on completing three important steps: knowing what you want, doing your homework to understand what is currently available, and being aware of the going rates for each of your vacation options. Complete those tasks first. Then, once you see a great deal, make your purchase quickly before it is gone. Remember, there are lots of holiday travel shoppers out there looking for the best buy.
5. Evaluate package vacation deals. Packages combining air, hotel and even a rental car can save a lot of money on holiday travel. It's also possible that you could do better by shopping for each of the pieces of your vacation and putting them together on your own. Actively seek out package vacation options, compare them with what you can find separately, and evaluate both carefully before you buy. Look at sites such as Travelzoo, Cheap Caribbean, ShermansTravel.com and others. Make sure to include all of the components (airport transfers, meals, any applicable taxes and surcharges, etc.) before making a final decision between options and booking.
6. Remember to check the discount carriers. Some holiday vacation shoppers often forget that fare quotes from discount air carriers such as Southwest and Jet Blue are not included on popular booking sites such as Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity. Make sure to check with any available discount airlines before you book. Sometimes this may involve flying into or out of an alternative airport, but the savings can often be worth it.
7. Be very careful when booking connections. Airline travel hassles seem to have become a way of life these days and many experts advise that delays during the holiday periods will likely be worse than normal. In addition, winter weather problems can wreak havoc on flight plans. With this in mind, be particularly careful when booking your airline connections and leave plenty of time for possible delays. This extra time is even more important when traveling with children. If you miss your connection, you may have to resort to buying a last-minute full fare ticket to get to your cruise or final destination on time. During the busy holiday season, travel insurance may be an important asset for additional protection and peace of mind.
8. Seek out the discounts. If you are a member of AAA, AARP or any other travel club program, make sure to find and claim any available discounts. Although AAA's network includes over 100,000 retail and travel locations in North America, AAA's research showed that only 4% of their members were aware that they could get discounts at retail stores and many members that we've spoken with have forgotten to ask for their discounts when booking travel. If you're a member, don't forget to visit AAA.com and check their quoted hotel rates before booking your room. In addition, look for discounts provided by credit card companies, destination-oriented savings cards and books (such as the Entertainment books, Go Card USA attraction passes, and CityPass), frequent flyer/guest programs, and other groups.
9. Work with an agent. If shopping for deals hasn't yielded the rates you're looking for, sign up with the Orbitz "Deal Detector." This free service will alert you when fares for during your desired vacation period go below your target price. Travelocity also has an alert service that will generate an e-mail if the current available airfare to your desired destination gets lower. This may also be a very good time to call to your favorite travel agent to do some research and compare prices. A good travel agent is familiar with travel deals that may not be available to the general public, and can often save you time as well as money. In addition, travel agents can be excellent sources of information when comparing hotels, destinations and cruise lines. Travel agent deals can be found on sites like Travelzoo and sites like CruiseCompete allow agents to bid for your business.
10. Consider bidding for travel, but do your homework first. If you still can't find the price you're looking for, consider bidding for your air, hotel or car components. Sites such as Priceline.com and Hotwire.com can yield huge bargains, but this type of bidding for travel involves some risks. You will often not know exactly what you're purchasing until you've already paid for it. For this reason, it makes sense to approach these sites very carefully. Families should be particularly careful when bidding on rooms, as the standard room offered is based on double occupancy and may not contain the bedding you require. Those who plan to purchase from Priceline or Hotwire should first visit www.biddingfortravel.com and www.betterbidding.com. These sites will help you to better understand the parameters for Priceline and Hotwire, allow you to research your options, and become an educated bidder. Sites such as Skyauction.com and LuxuryLink.com can also be good sources of family vacation bargains. Many resort family favorites such as The Homestead, the JW Marriott Ihilani, Disney's Grand Californian Hotel and Loews Ventana Canyon Resort have been featured in auction packages on LuxuryLink. With these sites too, however, education and research are important. Make sure to know what comparable packages would cost when purchased on other travel sites or directly from the source, and read the fine print for additional costs, date restrictions, surcharges and taxes/service fees. Even with all these caveats, you can still get some great travel deals, but make sure to shop carefully. When it comes to successful holiday travel shopping, smart bidding is more important than victorious shopping any day.