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5 key ways to upgrade holiday trips

My mom’s famous marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole- a holiday staple! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The next big item on every frequent traveler’s calendar is Thanksgiving- and it’s early this year – just a week away on November 22.

Since an increasing number of Americans are now taking the whole week off, expect big crowds, and long, slow-moving security lines at the airport this starting this Friday, over the weekend and of course, next week. (Might be time to consider line-busting options like CLEAR or PreCheck!)

If you are hitting the roads or the skies next week or next month, here are five ways improve your chances of having a happy holiday trip:

1-Book nonstop flights

While the lower price of a one-stop flight might be tempting, you increase your chances of a delay or cancellation by 100% when you take two flights instead of one to get to your destination. Why take that chance, especially if you are headed home for just a few days, and a delayed or canceled flight could spoil the entire trip?

In many cases nonstop flights cost the same, or only $50 to $100 more. I think of that extra cost as an insurance policy against a hassle-filled trip. (If you don’t know the difference between a nonstop, direct or connecting flight, please read this!)

Another tip to ensure a delay-free trip: Book early morning flights, which are frequently parked at the airport overnight and not reliant on arriving from another airport.

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2-Make high airfares pay you back.

Flying during the holidays means paying a premium of anywhere from 30% to 70% compared to other times of year—especially on long haul flights, according to FareCompare.com. Christmas/New Year’s holiday period airfares are running at an average $454 this year, up 5% from the same period last year when they were $434 according to Expedia.com. Average fares during the peak Thanksgiving period are only slightly less, averaging $442, which is also up 5% compared to last year.

So let’s face it, you’ll be breaking out the credit card—a lot—when traveling during the peak holiday season. You might as well be using a card that’s going to pay you back in points and other benefits. For example, I just signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which is currently offering a 40,000-point sign up bonus if I spend at least $3,000 in the first three months.

Since this is the holidays…and I have four trips booked between now and the end of the year… I’ll likely hit that threshold with ease. Which means I’ll end up with at least 50,000 points (bonus plus two points per dollar spent on travel) and that is enough for two no-blackout-date airline tickets, which I’ll likely use NEXT year to avoid paying through the nose to fly home for during the peak holiday season. (See below)

Right now, most major credit cards are offering similarly fat points and mileage bonuses to frequent travelers with good credit, so if you’ve been sitting on the fence about getting a new card, doing so during the heavy-spending holidays is smart strategic move.

3-Postpone peak season trips

If pricey holiday airfares will keep you grounded this year, celebrate with your family during “dead weeks” instead.  Dead weeks are travel industry lingo for the annual low points in travel demand, which ironically come in the middle of the peak holiday travel season. And when demand plummets, so do prices.

The catch is that you have to travel when everyone else is staying at home. Dead weeks typically occur right after the big Thanksgiving rush, and again right after the Christmas/New Years rush in early January. The good news this year is that with an early Thanksgiving (Nov 22) we have one extra dead week—the last week of November—and the deals are plentiful.

Here’s an extreme example: A transcontinental flight between San Francisco and Cleveland during the Thanksgiving or Christmas peak is currently a painful $1,460 (seriously!) round trip.

But when checking on dead week deals on Orbitz this week, I found that United is offering an astoundingly low fare of just $208 round trip on that route over the weekend of Nov 30-Dec 3. Now that’s dirt-cheap!

Dead week deals are not only a great opportunity for flexible travelers to save, but an easy way for frequent travelers to top off their mileage balances in order to keep or bump up their cherished elite level status. (That SFO>CLE round trip nets a whopping 4,300 elite qualifying miles.) If you are a Delta SkyMiles junkie, I found roundtrips between SFO and Atlanta for just $220 during dead weeks. Amazing!

Expedia has a helpful tool to find similar low fares.

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4-Stay at a hotel

Why burden the in-laws with the hassle of houseguests during the already stressful holidays? Instead of bunking on that lumpy sofa bed or stuffy guest room, book a nearby hotel.

Due to lack of demand from business travelers, most hotels are dirt-cheap during the holidays, and offer the chance experience a five-star hotel at a two or three star price.

Example: I frequently travel back to Atlanta, my hometown, for the holidays. I’ve found rooms at the five star InterContinental Buckhead hotel for just $139 per night during Thanksgiving or Christmas, while at other times of year they go for $400+.

Rooms at comfortable suburban hotels like Best Western that may be closer to your relatives are likely starving for business during the holidays—so call the hotel directly to see if you can negotiate a great deal.

Or show off your travel-tech-savvy by pulling out your fancy new iPhone 5 or Samsung Galaxy S3 and using last minute hotel-deal apps like HotelTonight to score some amazing rates.

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5-Splurge a little

While you can always pay a lot more to sit in first class, you can now pay a little bit more, and get a more comfortable coach seat. During the busy, crowded holidays, that’s money well spent.

While getting a few extra inches of room always helps, the real benefit of paying for a better economy seat is that you are usually allowed to board early—with elite level flyers. Early boarding means you get early access to scarce overhead bin space, and since these seats are located near the front of the plane, you’ll be among the first to exit when the plane lands.

These premium economy seats cost from $20 to $200 more, depending on the duration of the flight. For example, for a trip home for the holidays, you could pay Delta $70 extra for one of its Economy Comfort seats for the 4-5 hour nonstop between San Francisco and Atlanta. A cheaper option would be Southwest’s EarlyBird check in fee of just  $10 each way—which gets you to the front of the line for boarding.

Have a great trip and a very happy holiday!

-Chris McGinnis

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Disclosure: Some of the companies mentioned in this post have been or are current clients of my company, Travel Skills Group, Inc.

 


Early Thanksgiving-Christmas airfare sale

Southwest Airlines recently painted a 737 based on the Colorado state flag.

One of the biggest downsides of downsizing in the airline industry is that peak holiday airfares head into the stratosphere. Since 2005, the supply of airline seats flying around out there has declined about 10%. However, during holiday peaks, demand is the same or greater than before, which results in painful spikes in airfare.

Southwest and AirTran announced an interesting TWO DAY systemwide fare sale today, which offers nearly half off the going rate if you are willing to travel on the DAY of the holiday… i.e. Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

This sale fare applies to flights on Thanksgiving Day (Nov 22), Christmas Eve (Monday, Dec 24) and Christmas Day (Tuesday, Dec 25).

Take a look at how much you can save if you are willing to fly on off peak days around Thanksgiving.

SFO>Chicago-Midway.

If you can fly out on Thanksgiving Day and return on the Tuesday after, the lowest fare is just $318.

But if you can only fly on peak days…such as the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after, the lowest fare spikes to $532:

 

The same goes for Southwest or AirTran nonstops between SFO and Atlanta.

Let’s say you get up early and fly to Atlanta on Thanksgiving Day, getting there just in time for an evening feast (and then returning on the Tuesday after). The lowest fare is $366.

But if you travel when everyone else wants to, such as the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after, you’ll pay dearly, with the lowest fare at $619.

 

Keep in mind that this is good today through Thursday only… so if you are mulling heading home for the holidays, it might be a good time to start checking fares and making decisions. While I used Southwest as an example, you will likely find other airlines matching these fares later today.

Another important note- see how I only searched for NONSTOP flights? I always suggest traveling non-stop during the winter holidays- it reduces the likelihood of delays and offers the maximum amount of time with family for the holidays. You will likely see nonstop fares rise significantly as we approach the holidays, while one-stop fares might be lower.

Here’s the fine print regarding this sale (identical for Southwest and AirTran):

  • Purchase from August 28 through August 30, 2012, 11:59 pm Pacific Time.
  • Travel September 7 through February 13, 2013.
  • Blackout Dates Apply: October 5, October 12, October 19, November 16-November 21, November 23-November 26, December 20-December 23, December 26-December 31, 2012, and January 1-January 2, 2013.
  • Sale fares not valid for travel to New Orleans January 31-February 2 or February 6-February 9, 2013, nor from New Orleans February 4-February 5 or February 7-February 13, 2013.
  • Travel valid every day except Sundays.
  • Offer not available to/from Washington D.C. (Dulles); Key West, FL

What about you? Is it time to bite the bullet and commit to holiday travel plans? Given the strength of the summer travel season, I don’t expect to see many fare sales for the holidays this year… 

 

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Paying up pays off for holiday trips

Why wait in a long holiday taxi queue? Reserve a car instead! (Photo: Enrico Salad / Flickr)

As the peak holiday travel season approaches, everyone’s looking for a deal or a steal. But the truth of the matter is that bargains are difficult to come by during the Thanksgiving and Christmas peak travel season.

And if you snag what you think is a bargain, you might end of  “getting what you pay for.”

As a matter of fact, paying a little more at this time of year usually translates into more peace of mind, more quality time with friends or family, and the increased likelihood of a low-hassle trip home for the holidays…. which is what we all want.

Here are six examples to illustrate what I mean:

 

1> Take a nonstop flight. While you might be tempted by the price of a one-stop flight, by choosing one, you are increasing your chances of a delay or cancellation by 100%! Why take that chance, especially if you are headed home for just a few days, and a delayed or canceled flight could spoil the entire trip?

Cost: $50 to $200 depending on flight length

Example: Flying during peak Christmas week between San Francisco and Atlanta, you’ll pay $660 for a six-hour one-stop journey on Frontier connecting in Denver. On the other hand, fly four hours nonstop on Delta or AirTran and the fare is $730- $70 more. Worth it to fly nonstop? I think so. (Fares checked Nov 13 for flights departing Dec 23, returning Dec 27 and are subject to change.)

 

2> Book your trip via a real, live travel agent. Most budget-conscious travelers shy away from travel agents who charge fees. But as the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) likes to say, “Without a travel agent, you’re on your own.” Most travel agents can use their experience, connections and clout to help get you out of sticky situations, plus they’ve got knowledge and experience to offer you the best alternatives when or if you get stuck.

Cost: $20-$50 or negotiable

Example: ASTA’s motto surely rang true last year when a monster storm blew up the East Coast on Christmas day, stranding travelers across the country. Most of those who booked trips via travel agents were able to get through to them by phone and adjust travel plans faster than those who only had airline 800-numbers. (Note: Be sure the travel agent you choose has an after hours emergency number.)

 

Rooms dip as low as $80 over Xmas at a brand new Best Western near Dallas, TX

3> Stay at a hotel. Why burden the in-laws with the stress of houseguests during the already stressful holidays? Instead of bunking on that lumpy sofa bed or stuffy guest room, book a nearby hotel. Tip: Due to lack of demand from business travelers, most hotels are dirt-cheap during the holidays, especially those located in suburban office parks. Travel expert John DiScala, who edits the popular johnnyjet.com website suggests that the holidays are a great time to consider redeeming loyalty points for nicer hotel digs, saying, “For example, Hilton HHonors points can also now be used to upgrade an existing reservation to a premium room or suite at hotels worldwide, with no blackout dates.”

Cost: $50 to $100 per night, depending on location.

Example: A nice, newish Hilton Garden Inn in the northern Atlanta suburbs costs only $67 per night during Christmas week—but book it two weeks later when business travelers are back on the road and you’ll pay nearly twice that much- $127.

 

4> Review your charge card benefits. Most banks have added a slew of new benefits to charge cards in recent years to woo free-spending, credit-worthy frequent travelers, so you might be packing more power in your pocket than you know. While annual fees are higher for such cards, many now offer benefits that come in handy for holiday travel such as waived baggage fees, access to airport lounges, early boarding privileges, early check in/late check out or upgrades at hotels, concierge services and more.

Cost: $100-$500/year

Example: While the American Express Platinum card sounds expensive at $450/year, the benefits can pay off big time when it comes to peak travel season. For example, the card gets you out of the airport holiday mayhem and into 600 airport lounges (gratis) around the world, covers up to $200 airline fees from checked bags to in-flight food or cocktails, and Global Entry membership, which gets you to the front of the line US Customs and Immigration. For a $95 fee, the new Chase/United Explorer card offers early boarding, one free checked bag, and two United Club passes. Many high-end cards also offer concierge services that can help get you out of travel jams—worth a call if you get stuck!

 

Delta's roomier Economy Comfort seat now on SFO-JFK5> Book roomier airline seats. While you can always pay a lot more to sit in first class, you can now pay a little bit more, and get a more comfortable coach seat. During the busy, crowded holidays, that’s money well spent. While getting a few extra inches of room always helps, the real benefit of paying for a better economy seat is that you usually get to board early—with elite level flyers—which means you get first dibs on scarce overhead bin space.

Cost: Varies based on carrier and flight duration- $10-$100 per segment

Example: I frequently take advantage of last minute upgrades to Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select seats, which offer a few extra inches of legroom at exit rows and bulkheads, free in-flight food and booze, and early boarding privileges. While reserving a Main Cabin Select seat in advance can be expensive, cheaper last-minute upgrades (24 hours prior to flight) can make a good flight a great one. Delta recently added roomier “Economy Comfort” seating on transcon flights between SFO and New York City.

 

6> Hire a car service to/from the airport. There are lots of reasons why you should use a car service for a ride to or from the airport during the holidays. First, don’t burden friends or family with the chore of driving to the airport during rush hour traffic to pick you up or drop you off. Second, when arriving, you walk straight to your waiting car instead of waiting in those long, cold taxi queues at airports that form during peak holiday season.

Cost: 10%-20% more than cab fare

Example: Last month I was greeted by a taxicab queue at SFO at least 100 people deep after returning from a 15-hour flight from Dubai. Wish I had booked a car service! In New York, I always use the economical Dial 7 car service (212-777-7777) which costs $5 or $10 more than a cab, but offers a comfortable sedan ride to/from Manhattan versus the tight squeeze, bumpy ride, and possible wait for a NYC Taxi.

Where are YOU headed for the holidays? Please leave your comments below.