For whatever reason, you’re just now scheming up a way to afford traveling over Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, or New Year’s. Unfortunately, you’re probably finding that prices aren’t as cheap as you hoped.
The bad news is that you’re running out of time. The good news, however, is that it’s possible to save on last-minute holiday travel if you’re willing to get a little crafty. Here are some tricks to ensure you still get a good deal on your last-minute holiday plans.
1. Travel right before or after the holidays
If you’re willing and able, you might want to consider traveling right before or after the holidays. Doing so can lead to substantial savings, on both hotel bookings and airfare. While the price difference you’ll see may depend on where you’re traveling to and from, the savings is almost always there. (See also: 20 Secrets of Last-Minute Travel)
Imagine you’re traveling from Chicago to Montego Bay, Jamaica, for example, and plan to fly Southwest Airlines. A quick look on the Southwest site shows just how much you can save if you wait a few days.
You’ll pay $392 one way if you fly out on December 22nd, and a shocking $557 on the 23rd. If you can wait until the 29th or 30th — just a few days before New Year’s — however, you’ll pay just $296 or $250 for a one-way ticket.
Flights back to Chicago in January are priced similarly. You’ll pay more than $500 to fly home on the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd of January, but prices go down from there.
When it comes to Thanksgiving, The New York Times reports that the most expensive day to fly is generally the Wednesday before. With all of these dates, however, you should check prices from your local airport to find out which dates are cheapest for you. (See also: 11 Ways to Save on Holiday Travel)
2. Drive, don’t fly
Depending on where you’re going, you can usually save a bundle if you drive instead of fly. This may not be possible if you’re traveling to, say, Jamaica, like in the example above. But what if you’re traveling a day’s drive or less away?
According to the CheapAir.com daily airfare ticker, the average cost of a domestic ticket is running around $404 as I write this. This means a family of four would pay a minimum of $1,616 for airfare, not including airport parking, fees for checked bags, and other incidentals.
It’s easy to see how you could save by avoiding this cost and driving instead — even if you have to rent a car and buy gas. Either way, it makes sense to run the numbers and compare.
3. Check award availability for hotels and flights
If you have airline miles and hotel points to burn, it’s easy to assume you won’t find award availability over the holiday. The good news is, that isn’t always true — and there are some foolproof ways to use rewards regardless. (See also: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards)
For starters, if you have Southwest Rapid Rewards points, you can use your rewards for nearly any flight on any date. Southwest promises that if a seat is open on the plane and you have the points to book, it’s yours. (See also: Southwest Airlines Just Got Even Better With the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Card)
You can also consider using flexible rewards for holiday travel. This involves using a credit card that allows you to redeem points for travel you book through its travel portal. These cards also often allow you to request a statement credit for any travel expense. You may have to fork over more points to cover the costs of holiday travel because redemptions are based on the dollar cost of the flight or room, but at least you can use your rewards. (See also: How to Choose Between an Airline Credit Card and a Flexible Travel Card)
4. Search the web for last-minute holiday deals
If you’re flexible in terms of where you travel, then you might want to let the deals guide your plans. By searching the web for a rare travel deal around the dates you want to go, you might find a new destination to love and learn about. At least you’ll be trying something new.
Sites like Expedia.com and Priceline.com post their share of last-minute travel deals, and you can always check out Groupon Getaways to see what’s good over the holidays.
Lastly, websites such as SecretFlying.com and TheFlightDeal.com post new travel deals to all sorts of destinations every day.
5. Fly on an actual holiday
Here’s another potential way to save: Book on the holiday or the day before the holiday. Once again, whether this will work or not depends on where you’re flying, competition for the route, and other factors.
The point is, it always pays to check. Take this selection of flights on American Airlines from Cincinnati, Ohio to Miami, Florida around Christmas this year. If you are OK flying on Christmas Eve, you can score round-trip fare starting at $465. Fly on Christmas Day, on the other hand, and you’ll pay $591. If you fly on the Saturday before Christmas and stay a week, you’ll pay a minimum of $710.
No matter where you’re going, it’s best to figure out which days are cheapest and whether flying on an actual holiday will help you save.
6. Book a vacation package
Vacation packages that include both flights and airfare can be a good way to save. Search for packages on sites like Expedia, Priceline, and CheapCaribbean.com, and you can often find packages for up to 40 percent off.
Unfortunately, not all vacation packages are a good deal. Before you book, make sure to price out airfare, hotels, and other inclusions separately to see how much you’re really saving, if anything. (See also: 6 Questions to Ask Before You Book a Vacation Package)
7. Sign up for newsletters
All the major airlines, travel booking sites, and hotel brands offer newsletters that feature special sales and discounts. By signing up with all your favorite brands, you can be among the first to know about an epic holiday sale or special deal that ends soon.
Following big travel brands on Facebook and Twitter is also a great way to hear about sales.
8. Be flexible
While any tip on the list can help you save on last-minute holiday travel, the most important tip of all is probably just to be flexible. If you have your mind set on a specific destination on specific dates, you’ll be in the worst position to save.
By being flexible with dates and even where you travel, on the other hand, you’ll leave yourself open to discovering the best deals out there. While holiday travel may be priceless, saving money never hurts.