The holidays are a notoriously tricky time to navigate accommodations, fares, and itineraries. November and December fares are generally up nearly 40 percent even before July is over. This isn't the only way companies have figured out how to get the most out of their customers over the holidays. But with some careful planning (yes, there's still time!), you won't get caught in their sticky web. A few travel experts share how to use those points wisely, where to spend your money, and how to maximize your trips this holiday and into the new year.
01. Use points to your advantage.
What’s the real deal with points? Loyalty programs and companies rely on the fact that you will get too overwhelmed to cash in the free upgrades that you deserve. Brian Kelly, aka The Points Guy, shares that about 73 percent of Americans enrolled in credit card rewards or frequent traveler programs don't know how many points they have. Don’t become a sad travel statistic in 2015! Sign up for AwardWallet, and it will change your life. You'll get email notifications when points are expiring. And it keeps track of all your frequent flyer, loyalty program, and credit card point balances. You will never worry about expiring points disappearing down the corporate rabbit hole again.
02. Trade homes.
Aside from the flight, accommodations are always the biggest expense of any trip. What if I told you that you could stay in your next destination for less than $25 a month? Home-swapping may take a leap of faith and a certain type of person, but think of it as a mutually insured option. House swapping is an alternative to travel accommodations where two parties agree to swap their homes for a set period of time, with no money changing hands. Rather, home-swapping companies charge a fee to act as the middle man. "Home exchange is the perfect way to travel more for less throughout the year," says Ben Wosskow, co-founder of LoveHomeSwap.com. "Our members save an average of $3,500 per trip on the cost of accommodation—and better still—enjoy all the benefits of vacationing in a home, not a hotel."
This summer, I used Love Home Swap to stay in the south of France for eight nights. I had a wonderful experience and would recommend it to anyone. Lois Sealey of Home Base Holidays advises, "Once you have agreed to an exchange, keeping in regular contact with your hosts/guests builds trust and often leads to lasting friendships, one of many extra benefits of swapping homes."
03. Know when to book and when to travel.
Holiday travel can get pricey. Outside of summer and spring break, it’s the most popular and in-demand time to travel. If you have a flexible job, opt to travel on off-dates, like flying on Wednesdays instead of Friday or weekend departures. I love using the Kayak travel grid to see when the cheapest flights are available.
Julie Cassetina of Trip Advisor shares, "Another helpful tip for those traveling during the holidays: If possible, book flights into alternative airports. Rather than flying to Boston, try Providence or Manchester, New Hampshire." For Christmas domestic travel, we recommend booking three weeks in advance. Booking windows are tight, so look to the first week of December for savings around 5 percent. If you wait too long, mid-December fares begin to steadily increase. You could be looking at average fares that are as much as 36 percent above the average fare and 50 percent above the lowest average fare. Accommodations also tend to be cheaper when you check-in mid-week.
04. Look to the locals.
Hire local guides if you do plan on traveling during the holidays. They’re a bonus private photographer, know the best tips, and can save you from tourist traps. Ask for authentic experiences that are only available over the holidays. If you’re staying in a home exchange or Airbnb, your hosts are a great reference point. Or try Tours By Locals to hire a local guide who can help you make the most of your time in a new (or even familiar!) place. They can customize a day of exploring so you see the sights that matter most to you, whether that means skipping the line at the Louvre or finding the best gelato in Rome. You’re not stuck following the same standard itinerary as people who hopped on a bus tour. Don’t forget to tip accordingly!
05. Give the gift of travel.
No matter what you do, there is no such thing as a free lunch—or a free trip. But travel is a great way to minimize your budget for maximum impact. Rather than buying objects for loved ones this holiday, give memorable experiences instead. Prepay for aspects of a future trip in advance; you can even use expiring rewards points. Scout Jetsetter and Groupon to save 50 to 90 percent on last-minute travel deals. Viator sells flexible gift certificates you can use on thousands of tours and activities. Now is the time to take advantage of the many deals on flights, organized trips, and cruises for 2015—and finally book that trip that's been on your bucket list for years!