If you’re planning on dashing through the snow—one-horse open sleigh optional—a little research can save you hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on travel.
Millions of Americans are expected to travel in the next few months, whether it’s for Christmas or a winter vacation. Travel experts say that being flexible with both your travel dates and your destination is the biggest way to cut costs, especially around the holidays when airfare and hotel rates are at a premium.
Winter vacation travel tips
The average round-trip Christmas airfare is now $467 per ticket, a 10% increase over last month’s $423 average ticket, according to a fact sheet from airfare discount site CheapAir, which tracks over 11,000 flights globally, waiting until December can cost you. On average, you’ll pay an additional $64 per ticket, or about $250 total if you’re a family of 4.
So before you book, check out these budget-friendly winter travel tips from our vacation travel gurus.
1. Try to be flexible with your dates
If you can swing the time off from work (and tolerate that much family togetherness) the cheapest flights leave Dec. 18 and return Dec. 28. Another good travel day, according to CheapAir? Christmas Eve Day.
Hot tip: If you’re planning a New Year’s trip, New Year’s Eve is one of the cheapest holiday days to fly. Just make sure to avoid returning on Jan. 2, which is poised to be the most expensive day to fly home.
2. Don’t lock yourself into a specific vacation destination
Heading out of town but have some freedom on where to go? Be flexible.
“Too many times I hear, ‘I want to go to Maui on February 11th.’ Well, that’s the absolute worst way to save money on travel,” says travel expert and Club Thrifty blogger Holly Johnson. “Getting your heart set on a specific destination is the death knell for travel savings.”
Instead, she says, make a list of four destinations that fit within your vacation theme, whether it’s a beach vacation or ski trip, and make your decision based on each trip’s cost.
“Maybe if you were willing to go to another island in Hawaii or consider a few destinations in the Caribbean as well, then you could check flight prices, hotels and everything else in all those destinations,” she says.
3. If you are visiting family, check fares at multiple airports
Just because grandma lives in Fort Lauderdale doesn’t mean you have to fly into that airport.
Look up fares in and out of area airports even if it means a bit more driving or a longer Uber ride. It could save you hundreds in the long run.
“We live in Indianapolis, in the suburbs, but we drive to Chicago all the time for cheaper flights,” Johnson says
That drive, which takes about 2 ½ hours each way, typically saves between $200 and $500 per ticket for her family of four, or about $2,000.
“It can be a pain, but the savings can be worth it,” she says, adding that bigger airports also offer more options for direct flights.
4. Going skiing? Don’t buy your lift tickets at the door
Dave McHale, a web developer from Connecticut, always on the lookout for discounted lift tickets and passes for himself and his winter sports-loving family.
He says that he ’s saved more than 25% by booking tickets and passes online and doing his research.
McHale recommends comparing the costs between the mountain’s website and third-party sites like Liftopia.com.”
“Even if you make weekend plans with friends during the week, you’re still better off going online and buying your ticket 72 hours ahead of time instead of waiting and buying it at the window,” he says.
McHale, who lives a few hours’ drive away from New England’s popular peaks in Vermont and New Hampshire, also makes a point to hit up local ski expos, even if it’s a bit of a drive to get there.
“Lots of mountains will often have reps out there selling deeply discounted tickets, and sometimes you will even get free lift tickets just for walking in the door,” he says. “A few years ago, I bought a single-day pass for $70 when the current going price was $95, and as a bonus, I was given a free pass to bring a friend.”
5. Book short-term rentals, rather than hotels
Not only are short-term rentals often less expensive than hotels, but you also get more for your money in the form of more room, a kitchen, and possibly laundry facilities.
A hotel near the slopes in Park City, Utah, for example, will run you $396 per night for a 355-square foot room that sleeps two adults, according to booking data from Expedia. If you book that for four nights during New Years week, the total can come out to more than $1,900 when taxes and fees are added in.
But a 1,000-square foot VRBO condo rental in the same area that sleeps four and has two bathrooms just $270 per night for the same week, totaling about $1,550 — a savings of nearly $400 for a space that’s more than twice the size and sleeps more guests than the hotel room.
“We almost always get Airbnbs,” Johnson says. “That makes food a lot more affordable, especially if you can eat breakfast in.”
“We like to have a kitchen,” she says. “Just to have drinks in the fridge can make a big difference when you’re not constantly buying a $2 drink.”
6. Start planning for next year’s winter vacation as soon as the ball drops for 2019
Make a New Year’s resolution to plan in advance.
Keeping an eye on deals throughout the year and buying in the offseason is a great way to book next year’s holiday or winter vacation at rock-bottom prices.
According to CheapAir, the Christmas airfare that’s now nearly $500 per ticket was just $391 for people who bought their tickets in early April.
Good tip: If you take advantage of early deals, just remember to protect your investment should your plans change. Travel insurance can help you recoup the bulk of your airfare, and make sure you choose accommodations with a generous cancellation policy.