5 Last-Minute Strategies for Holiday Travel Procrastinators

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By Jason Notte

NEW YORK -- You really have to like a challenge if you're booking your holiday travel today or later.

Just days before Thanksgiving and little more a month before Christmas, we're pretty confident in saying holiday travel bargains are gone. Last-minute deals? You're pressing your luck if you think there are going to be last-minute seats at this late hour.

Airlines are still offering winter sales, but most holiday dates are blacked out. Unless you're headed abroad for the holidays, there is no such thing as a "deal" at this stage. As FareCompare chief executive Rick Seaney notes, "You waited too long."

There are still options out there, but none are remotely good. At best, you're doing what you can to hop a flight and see your family. With the help of the folks at FareCompare and SmarterTravel, we have put together a few tips that will prevent you from bankrupting yourself. These aren't "savings" so much as they're ways to avoid the worst-case holiday scenario.

Fly On the Holiday

Maybe you misjudged the calendar or just flat-out forgot. Either way, you haven't booked a ticket and breaking your loved ones' hearts isn't an option.

The good news is that some tickets are still available. The bad news? They're roughly the cost of a large family's Thanksgiving dinner.

If you have frequent-flier miles to use, now is the time. There are going to be last-minute redemption fees, but would you rather pay full price? You can also consider flying Thanksgiving Day. You'll miss the parade unless you're on a flight with DirecTV (DTV), but not getting to mock the Today show parade crew is the price you pay for your sloth. Meanwhile, you'll be flying on one of the least popular days on the airline calendar and you'll make it home in time for turkey and stuffing. If you really want to save, make it a quick turnaround and leave the Saturday after thanksgiving. It can knock $100 to $200 off the ticket price and will be your only opportunity to do so unless you want to leave on Dec. 1.

Change Destinations

There are ways of getting to Thanksgiving dinner in Washington, D.C., without flying into Reagan International, Dulles or even Baltimore. And there's hope for escaping New York without joining the rest of the city in LaGuardia, JFK or Newark.

New Yorkers may want to consider flights into Newburgh, N.Y., Philly or Hartford. Philly isn't a bad option for getting to D.C., either, but Roanoke might be a great bet if you can deal with the drive. Heading home to Seattle this season? Try Portland or Vancouver. Want to get back to Chicago but don't want to deal with Midway or O'Hare? Join the Notre Dame fans in South Bend or the Cheeseheads in Milwaukee.

It'll cost you an hour or two in driving, but could save you as much as $100 if you pick the right routes.

Connecting Flights Are Your Friends

Red-eye and connecting flights are a huge help this time of year year. By comparing routes you could save $100 or more by selecting a less-convenient connecting flight.

We will warn, however, that layover locations are all-important during winter travel. Saving $150 on a flight by making a connection means little when you're snowed in somewhere in the Midwest and losing a travel day in the process. Seek warm-weather connections and cross your fingers.

Consider All Options

Being adamant about your level of comfort this late in the game is only going to cost you more time and money.

Moving around with more luggage than Coco Chanel isn't frugal at any time of year thanks to baggage fees. During the holidays, travel surcharges only make anything above a carry-on seem like a costly luxury. Now is the time to start thinking about shopping for holiday gifts online and having them shipped directly to your destination. Also, don't be afraid to get your hands dirty doing some laundry in your destination of choice. On a flight with multiple connections, shedding a few bags can save as much as $70 each way.

Also consider just how much this visit means to you. If it means enough to extend your stay, consider flying before Dec. 15. We realize that's a bit far ahead, but airline surcharges and peak travel days only make it tougher from that point on. Otherwise, you're flying in on Christmas Day and not leaving until Dec. 29 or Dec. 31. According to Priceline (PCLN), those are the best days for pricing and availability, and even that's not saying much.

Make It a Package Deal

Seaney and SmarterTravel's Ed Perkins have recommended travel packages as a way around winter holiday pricing.

Perkins notes that most big airlines and big online travel agencies bundle packages that often cost less than arranging the individual parts on your own. Granted, those deals are a whole lot better when you book in, oh, September, but there's still a chance you can get a package with a price low enough to basically get you a rental car for free.

We can't promise you'll save a whole lot on airfare, but at least you'll get a cheap ride or room for your trouble.

9 Hotel Scams and Annoying Fees to Watch Out for
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5 Last-Minute Strategies for Holiday Travel Procrastinators
After you check in, the room phone rings, allegedly from the front desk. There's a problem with your credit card, the operator says, please give me the account numbers again. To pull it off, all a criminal has to do is trick their way through a hotel switchboard and catch a patron in the room. If you get a call like this, hang up, call the operator, and ask if there's a problem. That's a good habit at home, too. Hang up and call back. If there's really a problem, don't reveal your number over the phone. Just walk back to the front desk.
"You find a pizza delivery flyer slipped under your hotel door," the FTC says. "You call to order, and they take your credit card number over the phone. But the flyer is a fake, and a scammer now has your info." I've not seen widespread incidence of this. it would be pretty brazen for ID thieves to physically walk around hotel hallways, where cameras might be used to identify them. Still, the same principal applies. Use a smartphone to double-check the phone number you see on any flyer placed in your room before you order pizza.
The single easiest way for a hacker to hijack your computer is to set up a rogue hot spot and trick you into connecting to it. "Oh, free WiFi," you think. While that's a very real problem, it's also not terribly likely in a hotel room. After all, to be close enough to pull it off, the criminal's technology would in most cases have to be inside the hotel. That's a risky proposition. On the other hand, you might be visiting a lot of strange coffee shops on the road, where rogue Wi-Fi is a more likely possibility. It's always smart to double-check the safety of the networks you connect to, however. It might be wise to stick with your smartphone's connectivity, if that's possible.
The more expensive the hotel, the more likely you will be charged a hefty Wi-Fi fee of $10-$15 per day. The new trick I've seen lately is for hotels to offer "free" Wi-Fi in the lobby but charge for access in the room. Best way to avoid that fee? Before you leave, make sure you know how to use your smartphone for broadband access.
Hotels have a love-hate relationship with websites like Priceline (PCLN) or Expedia, which help them fill rooms,but systematically put downward price pressure on their inventory. Extra fees, added at check-in, are the hotels' way around this problem. Many folks pay online, only to find there's additional charges when they arrive at the hotel. Resort fees are often the biggest culprit. As the name suggests, this fee is most prevalent in restort-y places like Las Vegas. 
Hotels like charging to clean your room now, as if that's not included in the price. The worst part of the housekeeping fee: Often, housekeepers don't get any of the money.
More hotels are embracing travelers with pets, and they're charge $10 to $100 for allowing a pet in your room. If you use a site like Expedia to sort through pet-friendly hotels, make sure you manually check the fee. Not all pet-friendly hotels are created equal.
This one bugs me. Some hotels put a safe fee on your bill, even if you never use the safe. You can ask that it be removed. Same for the newspaper fee.
Finally, gone are the days when hotels could be canceled by 6 p.m. on the night of a reservation for a full refund. Cancellation policies are all over the map now and can even vary based on how the reservation was initially made. Never book a hotel without knowing what the cost of a breakup would be. Travel always involves adventure, which involves unpredictability, which means plans change. Make sure you plan for that.
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