Holiday Travel 101
Get the Best Airfare
Start with a metasearch engine like Kayak.com; search your destination and dates, then click on "Chart" to see how prices on your chosen route have risen and fallen over the previous 90 days. If you have a price in mind already, plug your details in at Yapta.com; the website will keep searching and alert you when your threshold has been met. With the holidays quickly approaching, however, it's probably best to pull the trigger and book your flight the moment you find anything reasonable.
Be Flexible with Travel Dates
Thanks to new online flexible-date capabilities, it's easier than ever to quickly check fares over a range of dates. Look for a feature that says "flexible dates" or "more options" on both the airline websites and the metasearchers like Kayak.com, which lets you customize results (affordability, acceptable airlines, nonstop flights, morning departures only, etc.).
For international trips, check out specialist Vayama.com, which has proved successful at securing good deals even from obscure airlines.
Bundle Air and Hotel
If, after a few Internet searches, you still haven't found anything reasonable, consider booking a package from Expedia.com, LastMinute.com, or other companies that bundle together airfare and lodging for one price. Packages sometimes cost about the same or less than what the airlines are charging for flights alone.
Choose Your Flights Wisely
Three ways to help avoid delays: fly first thing in the morning, take nonstop flights, and travel via less crowded airports). If nonstops aren't possible, try to connect through a warm-weather airport, such as (Dallas, Houston, or Phoenix, rather than Chicago or Minneapolis), where weather-related delays are more likely in winter. If you're connecting, it's even more advisable to fly as early as possible in the day, before delays have a chance to build up across the country. Check out Flight Stats to research a route's on-time record, and the Transportation Security Administration's "Wait Times" section if you're wondering how long it takes, on average, to clear airport security.
Travel Against the Grain
It pays to think about where most people aren't during the holidays. Forget ski resorts and the beach, especially during Christmas to New Year's. Instead, look into business hotels, which are likely empty and have rooms available at well below rack rates. And consider places like New Orleans, where you can find great prices. Bargains are also fairly easy to come by in Las Vegas for much of December. New Year's Eve, of course, is a different story.
Play the Numbers Game
If traveling with a group of people, use your numbers as an advantage and negotiate for discounts and/or special perks wherever you're going. Most cruises have systemized discounts for groups—one free cabin with 10 paid rooms, for example. In terms of lodging, chances are you'll pay less and have more space by booking a villa, condo, or house rental rather than hotel rooms for everyone in your party. Contact airlines' groups departments; even if they can't offer you a discount at this stage, they can help you coordinate itineraries for everyone in your party. It's also worth checking out Groople.com, a travel website that specializes in groups.
Pack Light and be Organized
Traveling during the holidays is chaotic, and while you can't control the disheveled, stressed-out family fumbling through bags and holding up the airport check-in line, you can do a few simple things to keep yourself in order. Check in for your flight a day ahead and print your boarding pass at home before heading to the airport.
Try to pack light enough to travel only with a carry-on. If you must check bags, keep each under 50 pounds—the limit for most domestic and international flights nowadays—to avoid getting hit with an excess weight charge at the airport. Bring a snack, a book, pillow, portable DVD player, and whatever else you'll want on board the flight. And confirm all your reservations before leaving, because hotels and car rental agencies are often overbooked during the holidays.
Reserve Parking in Advance
There are services at most airports—both on and off the grounds—that allow you to reserve ahead, assuring that you have a parking spot, often for less money. Airport Parking Reservations, for example, covers more than 50 U.S. gateways. Depending on where you're departing, the airport may have valet parking, and advance reservations are typically required for this service. As you'd expect, it costs more than parking yourself, but it is certainly less of a hassle. The website of your departure airport should tell you what services are available.
Know the Carry-On Rules
The restrictions regarding carrying liquids and gels onto the plane are still in effect. Just remember 3-1-1, meaning liquids or gels must be in containers of 3 ounces or less, the containers must be placed in 1 clear quart-size zip-top bag, and only 1 bag per person is allowed. See tsa.gov/311.
At holiday time, there are additional concerns for carry-ons. For example, think before buying a present you're going to carry with you. (Toy guns? Probably a bad idea.) A bottle of brandy may make a nice gift, but because it's liquid you won't be able to bring it on board.
Consider Shipping Your Stuff
Companies like The Luggage Club will come to your house and pick up whatever you want shipped, so you don't have the hassle of lugging everything to and from airports or waiting at baggage claim areas. Before using a luggage specialist, however, check with the policies and prices offered by major express services Federal Express, DHL, and UPS. The luggage-shipping outfits often send items via one or another of these services, and it'll probably cost less to cut out the middleman.
Join a Rewards Club—Today
If you're renting a car or staying in a hotel that's part of a major travel company, join the loyalty program, even if you think it'll be the only time you'll use the company. Members often get express check-in, saving you precious vacation time. Joining is almost always free, and sometimes results in freebies and perks during your first interaction with the company.