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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.