Debt-Free Holidays: Seven Ways to Travel More Cheaply

Holiday travel For many Americans, an integral part of the holiday experience is travel. You may already know this if you were among the 42.2 million Americans that the American Automobile Association estimates hit the roads for Turkey Day this year.

Unfortunately, travel can also be one of the pricier undertakings for an average family. But don't worry: It's not too late to save big. WalletPop's resident experts, as well as a travel pro who appears on New York's NY1 News, all weigh in to offer you their best tips and tricks to make the skies -- as well as the roads -- wallet-friendly.
1. Book early.

If you use the holidays as an excuse for a family getaway on a cruise or to a theme park, booking early is your best bet. "One of the advantages of a cruise is that they're going to seat us together for dinner, but otherwise, everybody can go off and do whatever they want," says WalletPop's Jennie Phipps, who booked her extended family on a three-night cruise around the holidays this year. Phipps, who got a good deal by booking back in the spring and scoring a group rate, says she's saving even more because the getaway is her family's collective treat to each other in lieu of gifts.

Booking early is also important when it comes to renting a car around the holidays, points out Phipps. "If you're going to rent a car around Christmas, do it right this very minute. The prices go sky-high the closer you get to the holidays."

As an alternative, if you only need transportation once or twice during your trip, consider a car service, Phipps suggests. If you only need transportation to and from the airport, look into the shuttle vans (like SuperShuttle) that operate in many major cities. ZipCar and Connect by Hertz both let you rent cars by the hour instead of by the day, but they're in a limited number of locations.

2. Opt out of rental car insurance if your credit card already offers it.

Another way to save on car rental costs? "Check your credit card to make sure it will provide insurance on the car rental. Most do, and then you don't need to buy the excessive insurance the rental car places sell," says WalletPop's Ann Brenoff. Some cards may also cap your coverage at certain vehicle levels, so if you're planning to rent an SUV, double check to make sure you're covered.

3. Going a little out of the way, can help you save.

Widen your geographic scope for better rental car deals, says Valarie D'Elia, creator of the website Travel with Val. "I leave the city," says New York City-based D'Elia. "I spend the money on a train ticket where the rental car company can pick me up from the train station." Likewise, if you're flying into a different city for the holidays, it might be worth the inconvenience to take public transportation to a suburban rental facility where you can get your car of choice for a lot less cash.

4. Fill up the tank yourself!

One final note on rental cars: Always fill up the gas tank before you return the vehicle, says D'Elia. While rental companies offer a few different options for fill-ups, it's almost always cheaper just to pump it yourself before handing back the keys and heading on your way. "Why give them more money?" D'Elia says.

5. Check our past flight price fluctuations and compare prices online.

WalletPop's Savings Experiment also tackled the thorny question of how to make holiday airline trips a little bit easier on the budget. The video offers a roundup of sites that post data about past flight price fluctuations, so you can see which days are cheapest for traveling. (Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday generally tend to be cheapest.) Other tips the post offers are to comparison shop via the aggregator websites, but to hit an airline's website directly if you know which carrier you want to fly. Also, don't forget to factor the cost of luggage into your ticket, since those fees for checked bags, at an average of $25 or $35 each, can cut pretty substantially into your wallet.

6. Be willing to book the dreaded middle seat.

"Even though we're facing some higher airfares, a lot of the middle seats haven't filled," says D'Elia. If you find yourself in an air travel crunch this holiday season, "be prepared not to sit together for lower rates," she adds. If you go to some carriers' websites, you can see the available seats left. If the flight you want has a bevy of middle seats still not booked, sign up for flight deal alerts from a site like, says D'Elia, because it's possible the Carrier will knock down the price to fill those empty middle seats.

7. Bring snacks.

Don't forget that "little things" can add up, too. "Think ahead, and pack all the snacks you'll need on the trip," says WalletPop's Sarah Gilbert. "It will keep you and your kids from being seduced by an $8 piece of cheesecake at the airport kiosk or a $6 hot dog that will require a $5 purchase of antacids afterward! 'I'm hungry' is powerful stuff. Bring defense." And if you want to have water available at the airport without paying through the nose for it, pack an empty water bottle in your carry-on and fill it up at a sink in their terminal. For fussy kids who expect juice, try adding single-serving packets of drink mix.

Even if you're not traveling this holiday season, WalletPop offers plenty of advice for trimming your budget during the holidays. If you want to learn more about how to keep your holidays debt-free, check out our other articles in this series on food, shopping, entertaining and decorating.
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