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.