A woman in a jacket and boots walking into a cafe from the road

Paid time off is scarce. Thanksgiving is sacred. These are facts if you’re living in the United States, and that’s why the winter holiday season is one of the busiest times to travel.

The caveat? Demand for transportation and accommodation skyrockets between the months of November and January, making it the most expensive travel season. Finding a great deal during the holidays can be challenging, but here are a few ways to help maximize your money for a budget holiday season. 

1. Book early. 

At one point in travel discourse, there was a theory that airlines drop incredible flight deals for those waiting until the last minute. The theory worked! Extra seats would be sold highly discounted a few days before the flight. As the industry has changed, airlines have found other ways to manage their inventory and now, the closer you get to your flight date, the more expensive tickets get.

When is the best time to book holiday travel? There’s an exact science to it. 

According to AAA flight booking data from a three year span, the best time to book holiday flights is in the sweet spot between September 25 and October 27. What do you do if you miss that window? Russell Hannon, author of Stop Dreaming Start Traveling, shared his take on booking early.

“Book your departing flight as early as possible on Christmas Day (5-6 a.m. as kids are waking to open their gifts), and return on New Year’s Eve where you want to either be in the air (or landing) as the ball drops,” Hannon told Darling.

2. Set up flight notifications. 

There are so many different options to find flight deals these days, and one of my personal favorites is the Google Flights price tracking tool. When a flight you’re eyeing drops in price, you’ll get an email notification from Google. When you get that email, drop everything and book the ticket! If you change your mind, then you usually have the right to cancel your reservation for free within 24 hours. 

Another option is monitoring through an email subscription, such as the Dollar Flight Club, which sends you email notifications when outrageously cheap flight deals and “mistake fares” crop up. While you’ll never find a flight that is actually one dollar, there are fares that can come pretty close. If you’re lucky, then the dates might even land on the holiday travel season. 

3. Bundle to save.

If you need flights, plus accommodation and/or transportation, then bundling them together can give you some unexpected discounts. Popular websites like Expedia offer many travel booking packages for flights and accommodations, though you’ll find more savings if you’re bundling for international travel.

Before typing in your credit card details, run the calculations on your own. Often, these bundle packages offer discounts with the tradeoff of flexibility. Every once in a while, the savings aren’t there either. If you’re a loyalty member with a flight or hotel, then another thing to note is that you may not be able to earn those points when you bundle. Check the fine print, as you always should when booking discount fares.

A woman in all white holding a bag outside of castle-looking building

4. Change up the destination.

You can offset the high price of a flight during the holidays by choosing your destination strategically (if you haven’t already). The dollar holds a high value in most countries, and your money goes further in destinations like Cambodia and Chile where the currency exchange works in your favor. You can reduce your daily budget drastically when the average meal costs $4 instead of $10. 

When traveling internationally, it’s important to be aware of where your money is going and who it is supporting. Our spending has a heavier weight and our ethical choices become increasingly important in low-income economies. Try to shop local and support family-owned businesses. With intentionality, you can create a meaningful experience for everyone involved.

5. Snag a Cyber Monday sale.

Cyber Monday, a tradition of online sales on the last Monday of November, is also a good time to shop around for deals. Airlines don’t roll out crazy discounts during Cyber Monday, but Hannon has seen discounts for accommodations up to 90 percent off through sites like Expedia.com. A discounted hotel fare can reduce the strain of the holiday budget even if you don’t end up finding a flight ticket at the price you were hoping for. 

6. Use a credit card.

In case you haven’t heard, there are some credit cards that are highly beneficial for the frequent traveler. The Chase Sapphire Preferred and Reserved are two such cards that offer a generous one-time bonus for those who sign up. You may not find an insanely cheap holiday flight deal, but at least you’ll be able to save some money by using your new credit card points. 

Most of the travel-focused credit cards give cardholders bonus points for restaurant and travel-related spend, so make sure you use the right card for your expenditures to maximize on earning those points.  

One last bonus tip: learn to pack light and skip to check-in luggage. You’ll save $30-$50 per flight.

Are you a savvy traveler? What are some of your tried-and-true tricks for booking travel during the holiday season?

Images via Amanda Gallant, Darling Issue No. 6

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