How to Save on Your Thanksgiving Trip Home

Thanksgiving Travel
Jeff Chiu/AP

By Trae Bodge

Mark your calendars. Thanksgiving is on Nov. 27, which means the official travel season stretches all the way from Friday, Nov. 21, to Monday, Dec. 1. Even if you haven't made your travel plans yet, it's not too late. You can still book a trip and prevent a major dent to your wallet, and even score a deal, if you just follow these few easy Turkey Day travel guidelines.

Avoid Big-Ticket Days

Compared to last year, 400,000 more people are flying this year, meaning an estimated 24.6 million travelers will take to the air during the last 10 days of November (and first day of December), according to Airlines for America, the largest airline trade association in the United States. Because of all that demand, expect fares to be higher than usual throughout the end of the month, and anticipate that the most popular travel days, which are Wednesday, Nov. 26 and Sunday, Nov. 30, will carry the priciest tickets.

Your best bet: Fly out the Monday before Thanksgiving, and ask your family to serve the big meal on the early side of Thanksgiving Day so you can return home that evening. By flying on Thanksgiving proper, you can save up to 30 percent on your airfare, according to an analysis by Who knows, all that tryptophan may actually make the flight more enjoyable.

Another option (if your family is willing to push the feast to the evening): Fly out on Thanksgiving morning and return home on Tuesday, Dec. 2, the first day out of the holiday hot-zone. I tested it, and the savings are staggering. An American Airline (AAL) flight from New York to San Francisco, departing the day before Thanksgiving and returning the Sunday after, will set you back about $842. That same flight, departing on Thanksgiving Day and returning Dec. 2, is only $336, saving you over $500. That's not stocking stuffer-level savings. That's a 128GB iPhone 6 Plus.

Clear Your Cache

If you've been searching for cheap airline flights for a while now, you're likely not even seeing the best rates on your computer screen. Clear your cache to empty the airline websites' cookies, and the next time you search, you'll see the cheapest fares available, as opposed to those fares available to only increasingly desperate (or obviously procrastinating) travelers.

Adjust Your Route

Rather than fly into a major hub, check smaller nearby airports to see if cheaper fares are available; they often are. Added bonus: Rental car and parking rates are often cheaper at smaller airports too. Or ditch your dream of flying direct, and embrace the idea of the layover. Just try to think of having a glass of wine in another city for a few hours as romantic, and know that your willingness to be an adventurer is saving you big bucks.

Hit the Road

Gas prices have fallen below $3 a gallon, down to $2.95 on average, for the first time in nearly four years, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report. Experts say they could drop by up to another 15 cents a gallon in the short term and may remain low all season long. With that in mind, you may want to road trip it to Aunt Maude's house rather than jet it. Before you pile everyone into the car, though, change your oil, using the manufacturer's recommended grade; get a tune-up if anything feels wonky; and check your tire pressure. Doing all three can improve your gas mileage by nearly 10 percent.

Do a Swap

You can still find hotel deals, even this close to Thanksgiving. In fact, by waiting until the last minute, you could save up to $50 a night, according to an analysis by the travel website Hipmunk. If you're looking for homier options, check out HomeAway or Airbnb, which allow you to rent the home or apartment (or individual room) of local hosts, often at cheaper rates than hotels.

If you live in a city where others might like to visit, consider doing a home swap through one of the established exchange sites, like Homelink, LoveHomeSwap or Knok. So many people are looking to travel over the holidays, and if you don't mind trading your home with that of another family, it could be the cheapest option of all. You'll only have to pay the site's membership fee. Homelink's, for example, is only $39 for the year, if you're swapping only in the United States. LoveHomeSwap's is $20 a month. Knok, which specializes in child-friendly homes worldwide, is $29 a month. It might be worth exploring, especially if you're staying the full week.

Host it Yourself

The ultimate way to save on Thanksgiving travel, of course, is to not do it at all. Invite your loved ones over and host the feast, and the furthest distance you'll have to cover is from your house to the supermarket. It will cost you more in groceries, but if you love to cook more than you love to travel on hectic holidays, it will be worth it.