Tips for that last-minute dash

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Updated: November 30, 2014 1:49 AM

Haven’t made your plans for travelling around Thanksgiving and Christmas yet? Here’s some advice to help you make savvy choices

Go where the deals are If you want to take a vacation during the holidays, head to Europe.Travellers seeking warm weather may want to consider Las Vegas.

PLANNING TO travel over the holidays? Still haven’t made reservations? It’s not too late to find an affordable Thanksgiving or Christmas getaway. You might even end up saving more on a hotel than travellers who booked when it was still beach weather. And while airlines have a captive audience this time of year, there are ways to save. So here’s to the dawdlers and spur-of-the-moment decision makers. This procrastinator’s guide to holiday travel is for you.

Go where the deals are If you want to take a vacation during the holidays, head to Europe.

“Europeans tend to stay at home for the Christmas holiday,” says Gabe Saglie, a senior editor at Travelzoo. That means there are hotel deals to be had in popular destinations. For example, in Paris at Le Meridien Etoile near the Champs-Elysees, rooms at Christmas time are $149 a night on Travelzoo.com and include an upgrade and a 20% discount on food. In Rome, at the Berg Luxury Hotel, near the Via Veneto, you can book a room on Travelzoo through Christmas Day for $126 a night for two-night stays (or $113 a night for three nights or more). Rates include an upgrade, daily breakfast for two, a bottle of wine and discounts at the bar.

“The big secret for both Thanksgiving and Christmas is it is absolutely true that airfare is more expensive, but hotels are a lot cheaper,” says Sarah Gavin, a senior editor at Expedia.

Travellers who waited until December last year to book a hotel room saved about $60 a night compared with those who booked a room in August through October, as per research by Hipmunk.com.

Alas, flights to Europe from the United States are not as affordable. To compare fares, try Google Flight Search, which also tells you how much money you’ll save if, say, you depart a day earlier or fly into a different airport.

“The absolute best way to find a low airfare now is Google Flights,” says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com (one caveat: Google Flight Search does not include Southwest Airlines).

For international flights, Hobica recommends Momondo.com. “They’ll find combinations of flights that you won’t find anywhere else,” he says.
If you prefer to vacation in the US, visit a major business city like New York or Chicago. “Big urban destinations really rely on business travellers,” Gavin says. And during the holidays, leisure travellers can snap up great prices at high-end hotels that usually cater to executives.

“Thanksgiving to Christmas can be a bargain proposition because the business traveller is not booking those hotels,” Saglie says.

Travellers seeking warm weather may want to consider Las Vegas. New Year’s Eve will cost you, but there’s a sweet spot between Thanksgiving and Christmas when rates drop. If you stay over Thanksgiving weekend, the nightly rate will surely jump, but the low cost of the days surrounding that could average out to an affordable week. “Rates will drop in Vegas one day to the next 60-70%,” Saglie says.

To help you decide where and when to travel, use airline fare calendars. For instance, Southwest has a low-fare planning calendar at Southwest.com/flight/shortcut/low-fare-search.html. Yet don’t get swept away. “Just because it’s cheap airfare doesn’t mean it’s the most affordable flight,” says Saglie. You have to factor in incidentals like the cost of checking bags. And multiple stops, which can make flights cheaper, may also ruin a trip because you’re gambling with winter weather. Opt for southern connection points: Dallas, not Chicago. And be sure to leave plenty of time to make a connecting flight; at certain airports, you may have to go through security upon landing.

To see if the first leg of your flight is likely to arrive on time, check FlightAware, which lists performance history. “You can see flights on-time over a four-month period,” Hobica says.

Travel on ‘off’ days

Airfares and hotel room rates are typically lower during the week. And fly early when many families are home sleeping. “Take the 5.30 or 6 am flight,” Gavin says, “because so many people are travelling with kids. You can get much better deals on those flights than a 9 or 10 am departure.”

You can also get a deal by flying on a holiday. On Thanksgiving, fares can be 30% below average for domestic flights and 15% below average for international flights, as per research from Kayak.com. If you can’t do that, try travelling well in advance or after a holiday. “The Monday before Thanksgiving will be cheaper than the Tuesday,” Saglie says. Christmas is tricky. Instead of flying on December 21 (among the most expensive days), try December 23, 24 or 25.

Airlines often have sales on Tuesdays. And last-minute bargains are not out of the question. For hotel rooms, try a last-minute booking app like Hotel Tonight. Such apps can save you 15-40%, says Gavin. If flights are not full in the days before Christmas, you might nab a deal on airfare, but be prepared to have a middle seat, a flight at the crack of dawn, or multiple stops.

“It’s kind of like going to Marshalls at the end of the sale,” Hobica says. “You’ll end up with the orange sweater.”

Fly where there’s competition

Airline competition is great for your wallet. From New York, for example, you’ll find good fares to Nashville, Las Vegas, Chicago and Los Angeles, as per Airfarewatchdog. The site recently found a non-stop, round-trip flight from Kennedy International Airport to McCarran International in Las Vegas leaving on December 23 and returning on New Year’s Day for $344 on Delta.

“The regular, non-peak rates are so low that the peak fares are reasonable, even for holiday travels,” Hobica says.

And keep an eye on Frontier Airlines. “Wherever Frontier competes with other airlines you’ll see some amazing fares,” he says. He recently found a $284 fare on Frontier from Chicago to Washington departing November 26 and returning November 29. On Kayak, the cheapest fare he found was $712. In other words: don’t forget low-cost carriers.

At Christmas time last year, the average ticket from Los Angeles International Airport to Kennedy International Airport was $565, as per analysts at Expedia. Alternatively, if you fly from Los Angeles International Airport to La Guardia Airport, the route is $492. Instead of flying to Reagan National Airport from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, fly into Baltimore and you’ll save about $100, as per Expedia. Or fly into Washington Dulles International Airport and save around $80.

Gavin estimates that you generally save 10-20% on airfare when flying to and from big metro areas where you can choose between airports.
Bundle up

“Sometimes package deals are cheaper because they don’t have seven-day or 14-day advance purchase requirements on the airfare,” Hobica says. He recalled a JetBlue hotel and flight package that was so affordable, it paid to buy it even though the traveller who purchased it only used the flight portion.

Gavin says the average savings for travel bundles is $540. For bundles with resort stays in places including Mexico and Las Vegas it’s more like $800 to $1,200. One reason for the big discounts is that hotels can put their rooms on fire sale yet not reveal the nightly rate. “They can give a really good discount and still protect that public pricing,” Gavin says.

Saglie also likes bundling but advises travellers to research the hotel part.

“Just make sure that where the company is sending you,” he says, “is a place you would have picked anyway.”

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