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Smart Buying

5 Ways to Save Time and Money on Holiday Travel

Our guide will help you fly through this busy travel season.

Sorry, last-minute shoppers: The amazing holiday travel deals you scored at the 11th hour in 2008 won’t be so easy to find this year. With airlines cutting flights due to falling demand, there will be fewer seats at desperate discounts. But don’t lose hope. You can still afford to head home this holiday season. Here’s how:

1. Take the flights less traveled. According to, avoiding the most-popular Thanksgiving itinerary -- departing the Wednesday before the holiday and returning the Sunday after -- and opting for a Tuesday-to-Saturday trip will save you 20%, on average. Flying out on Thanksgiving Day and coming back on Monday can save more than 25%. Similarly, fares on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day are typically among the cheapest of the season.

Bonus: Steering clear of the airways on the busiest holiday travel days (this year, they’re November 29 and 30, December 19, 26 and 27, and January 2 and 3) will spare you a holiday surcharge of $20 each way that some major airlines are folding into fares. To quickly find the cheapest date combinations for your flight, use the flexible search options available on most travel-booking sites., for example, allows you to search for flights up to three days before and after the departure and return dates you specify.

2. Celebrate the holiday during a “dead week.” If you and your loved ones are extra flexible, get together in the first two weeks of December, when fares fall with demand. The average price tag on holiday flights peaks at more than $400 in late December. But during the post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas lull – and again for nearly all of January – fares dip to under $250, on average. If you’d rather take a break from holiday-season family time, grab an off-peak bargain for a solo or duo trip. United Vacations is offering packages to Aspen, Colo., including a stay at the four-star Silvertree Hotel, where the fourth night is free except during the busiest holiday dates. For example, a couple flying from Baltimore on December 24 for a four-night stay would pay $2,433 for the package. Starting the trip on December 2 instead would save nearly $1,000.


3. Just keep checking. Even after you’ve booked your flights, stay on top of the fare price. Most airlines and travel agencies will give you a refund (usually in travel credits) if your flight’s price drops after you book. But be sure the ticket change is worth the re-ticketing charge -- which can run from $50 up to $200 for domestic flights and up to $250 for international flights. Southwest does not charge a ticket-change fee and will credit you the full fare difference. For help tracking fares, you can set up alerts for certain routes through most travel-booking sites, including and At, you can even track a specific flight, especially helpful once you’ve already bought tickets. Plus, the site takes into account ticket-change fees. If your refund outweighs the fee, Yapta will let you know how to collect your travel voucher. Note: Yapta does not currently track Southwest’s flights, so be sure to keep an eye on the airline’s fares yourself.

4. Unload your excess baggage. Ship your gifts to save you the hassle and the heavy baggage fees: Checking just one bag can cost up to $25, and checking three bags can cost up to $175 on domestic flights. At, you can find more details on luggage fees charged by 30 major airlines. If shipping winds up costing more than baggage fees, or if you’d rather just keep your presents with you, don’t wrap the gifts until after your arrival. Airport security will rip open your packages if they need to be inspected.

5. Start the check-in process before takeoff. Save some time by checking in early at your airline’s Web site. Unfortunately, if you have luggage to check, you may still have to wait in a long line to drop off your bags curbside or to get to the ticket counter. Still, checking in online lets you confirm your seat and frequent-flier credits, save your ticket electronically, and pay baggage fees in advance—at a discount with some airlines.

While you’re online, stop by for updates on possible delays. You can even sign up to get free departure or arrival alerts sent to your e-mail in-box or cell phone.