High prices and long lines can squeeze the cheer out of going over the river and through the woods. This year, plan ahead and you'll save money, avoid the rush and get to your destination in time to make merry.
IF YOU'RE FLYING
Proper planning will keep your holiday spirit bright despite tight security, overbooked planes and uncertain weather.
- Book ahead. Try to get your tickets at least a month in advance, or as soon as your travel plans are definite. The cheapest tickets can sell out quickly.
- Check another airport. The best route or cheapest fare may not be from the closest airport. When searching for deals, look into other airports within driving distance, too.
- Switch your schedule. The best deals are often on holidays, rather than the busy days around them. Check airline prices for Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day (which falls on a Tuesday this year).
- Go nonstop. You may get a cheaper rate on a flight with a layover, but during the holidays, it may not be worth the savings. Crowded airports and wintry conditions often mean delayed or canceled flights. Avoid the hassle and get a nonstop flight. If you do chance a connecting flight, travel through a large airport in a Southern city, such as Dallas, where weather is less likely to be a factor.
- Fly nonpeak hours. Book flights that leave early in the day since these flights tend to run closer to schedule than other times.
IF YOU'RE TAKING THE TRAIN
Avoid some of the chaos of airports―those long security lines―and enjoy the scenery. Plus, you might get some extra leg room, compared with a coach flight.
- Get the best fare.
Fares vary depending on route, class and distance. Finding deals for long distances can be difficult. Ask a travel agent and check with Amtrak (amtrak.com) for discounts.
- Plan your tickets.
During the holidays, most trains are reserved―seating is guaranteed. Make sure you don't buy a ticket for unreserved travel, or you might not get on the train. Buy your ticket early to secure your seat and possibly get early-booking discounts.
- Surf rail Web sites.
Look for links to discounts, tips and hints for train travel on TrainWeb.com.
IF YOU'RE DRIVING
Traffic jams and cranky kids won't hinder your seasonal sojourn if you plan it right.
- Avoid drive-throughs. The food is often greasy and pricey and it isn't always fast―don't run into all those other drivers right off the highway exit during the holiday driving rush. Instead, fill a cooler with sandwiches and snacks before you leave. Or travel a little farther from the exit to find a grocery store.
- Keep kids entertained. Fun in the car isn't always spelled D-V-D. Let your children pack backpacks of things for the ride, such as crayons, paper, books and games. Ban the perpetual "Are we there yet?" with a map highlighting your route so they can enjoy tracking your trip. You'll be the one asking how much farther till Grandma's house.
DON'T GET GOUGED ON GAS
Try these smart money-saving strategies to cope with high prices at the pump.
- Figure out a budget. Estimate the cost of gas for your trip on AAA's fuel cost calculator (fuelcostcalculator.com). Enter your start and end points and car information, and you'll find out how many gallons you'll use and the approximate fuel cost of your trip.
- Find bargains. Gas prices can differ greatly from one station to another. Plan your route on Web sites like GasBuddy.com and GasPriceWatch.com. They will show you the cheapest places to purchase gas along your trip.
- Back off the brake. When you're stuck in holiday traffic, don't tap the brake over and over―it wastes a lot of fuel.
- Lay off the bun warmer. A seat warmer also burns excess fuel. If you're traveling in cold areas, sit on blankets instead.
- Clear the roof. Piling gear on the roof increases air resistance, making your car burn more fuel. Pack your luggage in the trunk or backseat so your car won't have to work as hard. If you must use a rooftop carrier, make sure it's level, secured and as far back on the roof as safely possible.