Kendra Thornton, owner of Chicago's Thornton Public Relations and a travel expert who's appeared on ABC, NBC and CBS, has some bad news:
"Everything in travel is more expensive over the holidays," she says. "Flights are more expensive. Road trips take longer due to congestion. And hotels charge more during peak periods."
But Thornton has some good news too: You don't have to drain your savings account on holiday travel this year. You just have to resolve to travel smart. Here's how to do it:
Act early. If you haven't already booked your airline flights or hotel reservations for Thanksgiving or Christmas, you better get busy. Thornton says that the best time to book a flight is anywhere from five to six months before you need to travel. It's too late to do that for this year, but keep this rule in mind when making holiday travel plans next year. If you haven't booked a flight yet, Thornton recommends shopping online at sites that consolidate airfare offers from several airlines. This is often the best way to nab lower tickets. Some recommended sites include Airfare.com, AirfarePlanet.com and CheapTickets.com.
Compare airports. Bob Diener, co-founder of Dallas-based Getaroom.com, says that holiday travelers might be able to save on airline tickets by choosing an alternate airport. The smaller airports sometimes offer cheaper flights to top destinations. Travelers might choose to fly out of Fort Lauderdale or West Palm Beach instead of Miami International Airport, Diener says or they might choose to fly out of the smaller Midway Airport in Chicago instead of O'Hare International Airport.
Time your exit. Diener says that flights that leave early in the morning often cost less. If you can stand the early hour, booking such a flight can reduce your holiday travel bill. "You'll be up early with excitement anyways," Diener says. "You might as well get your trip started." You might be able to save on flight and hotel stays by traveling on Christmas Eve or early Thanksgiving morning, Diener says. And if you return the following Saturday after the holiday, you could nab even lower ticket and hotel-room prices.
Pack light. Baggage fees can add up when flying. That's why Thornton recommends that you travel light. Airlines make plenty of money each year when checking the bags of customers who try to take their entire wardrobe with them when they travel. Don't make this mistake. Try to pack as few bags as possible when flying.
Avoid the drive-through. Driving for the holidays can be expensive, especially when you have to feed a family of five at the nearest highway oasis. Thornton instead recommends that families pack coolers filled with sandwiches, drinks, fruit and snacks. The food you'll find on the road is not only expensive, it's generally not good for you.
Ease off the throttle. You might be tempted when traveling by car to bust through the speed limit in an effort to get to grandma's house a bit quicker. But this isn't a financially smart move. Thornton says that you may drain more gas -- and need to spend more at the pump -- if you speed. She also recommends that you use your cruise control as much as possible. Not only is this relaxing, it also preserves your fuel. "The more you push on the gas pedal, the more fuel you burn," Thornton says.
Don't cram your car. You know that you'll save on baggage fees by packing light when you fly. But did you also know that you can save by packing lightly when you drive too? That's because a car that's heavier burns more gas as it motors down the road. Thornton recommends that you not overfill your car when taking a long road trip.
Abide by your budget. Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations with Freedom Financial Network, says that consumers who make a budget for their trip tend to spend far less when traveling during the holidays. Gallegos recommends that travelers itemize each expense and be realistic about how much money they have to spend. "If you find that you have to go into debt to take the trip, stop and re-think," he says. "Can you change dates, change lodging or make other adjustments?"
Skip the borrowing. Gallegos also recommends that consumers only travel during the holidays if they can pay for their trip upfront without adding to their credit-card debt. "It may sometimes seem that the fashion is to be in debt, use credit cards instead of cash and take incredible trips," he says. "It is important to enjoy life and important to take a break, but when it comes to finances, remember that it is more important to live in comfort now and in the future than to take a trip you cannot afford."
Whether you travel by air or land, these tips can help ease some of the holidays' financial stress -- not to mention the anxiety you might otherwise feel in January when those credit card bills arrive.