Want a stress-free holiday season?
Don’t travel. The holidays represent the busiest travel season of the year, which means long lines, delayed flights, congested traffic, and dense crowds — an even worse combination than usual in the era of COVID-19. And that says nothing of the higher costs, as airlines, hotels, car rental agencies, and other industry servicers mark up pricing per the higher demand.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the safest way to avoid spreading or contracting COVID-19 is to stay home and celebrate the holidays with family virtually. But that’s not an option for everyone. If you must travel this holiday season, follow these practical tips to stay safe and comfortable without overspending on your trip.
Safe & Practical Holiday Travel Tips
As you plan out your holiday travels, keep these tips in mind to stay safe and reduce stress.
Despite coronavirus travel restrictions, challenges, and inconveniences, Forbes notes that didn’t stop everyone from traveling for Thanksgiving during the pandemic. While the numbers are half what they were in 2019, more people traveled during Thanksgiving week than airports had seen since lockdowns first started across the nation.
As effective as onboard air filters are, they can’t protect you from the person seated next to you. And airports themselves are indoor spaces that sometimes get crowded, the exact types of areas the CDC recommends you avoid.
If you can drive rather than fly to your destination, that is usually the safest option.
For accommodations, explore self-contained, privately owned vacation rentals through services like Airbnb or VRBO. Many vacation rental landlords operate with contactless self-entry to the property, so you never have to interact with hotel clerks or wait in lines to check in.
The safest way to ensure you don’t have COVID-19 before seeing loved ones is quarantining for 10 to 14 days after arrival. While not foolproof, you can also get rapid-response COVID-19 testing, which prevents you from having to wait several days for regular test results, after arriving and before seeing loved ones. But MIT notes that if the virus is still incubating, your test could come back negative even if you’ve contracted the virus.
If you plan to travel for vacation rather than visit loved ones in a specific city, look at warmer destinations. The more you can do outside — from dining to entertainment activities — the lower your risk. Whether you’re vacationing or visiting family, check the COVID-19 risk assessment tool to ensure the activity you’re planning is a good idea. If you live in or plan to visit a high-risk area, it’s safest to cancel.
Bring travel-size hand sanitizer bottles. Airports, planes, train stations, highway rest stops, and just about every other public place you visit while traveling will offer up plenty of common surfaces for you to touch.
Finally, wear disposable masks, DIY masks, or store-bought reusable masks in public places, particularly indoor spaces, where the CDC says transmission risk is highest. Wearing a mask protects you and your family, much like a seat belt. If you spend time indoors with loved ones, remember social distancing, and aim to stay 6 feet apart at all times. But outdoor socializing is far safer, particularly with high-risk family members.
Holiday Gift Protection
When you travel over the holidays, the last thing you want to do is haul a bunch of gifts to your destination.
Whether you drive or fly, order your gifts online and have them shipped to your destination already gift wrapped by the seller. If that’s not possible, ship gifts through a carrier like FedEx or UPS, which can insure your delivery for an additional fee. It’s more cost and hassle but may be a better option than carrying them with you if they require special care.
If you must pack presents to bring with you, avoid fragile and heavy gifts altogether. They don’t travel well and just add to the complications of your trip.
Or if you’re traveling a long distance, skip gifts altogether. Because I travel home from overseas for the holidays, the cost of both gifts and travel to reach them is outside my holiday gift budget, so we don’t exchange them. Seeing each other is gift enough.
If you’re traveling for vacation, exchange gifts before you go so you don’t have to bring them with you. Or dispense with gifts and make the vacation your gift to one another.
You can also buy gift cards, which keep your gifts small, light, and travel-friendly. But try to avoid flying or driving with them and buy them upon arrival instead. Small and light also mean easily lost or stolen en route. Or purchase digital gift cards you can print or deliver via email instead.
And avoid traveling with any expensive gift. Beyond the risk of getting lost or stolen, they can also break en route. Traveling with gifts adds another layer of complication, which is precisely what you want to avoid. And while you can technically insure specific possessions through your homeowners insurance or renters insurance policy, it just adds more work and expense.
If you do buy or bring gifts, use a travel reward credit card to purchase them. Some provide additional limited warranties on the products you purchase, and all can reduce your airfare or other travel expenses when used properly. Read the details of your credit card’s agreement for more information.
Air Travel Tips
You can fill a book with air travel tips and tricks, especially when you add wrinkles like traveling with infants or traveling with children. But start with these fundamentals when booking holiday air tickets to keep your holiday travel as smooth as possible.
Plan in Advance
According to a study by CheapAir.com, the best window for affordable airline tickets is between 115 and 21 days in advance of your flight. The low point for fares averages 76 days out from the flight.
Booking in advance gives you first dibs on flight schedules and helps you avoid last-minute price gouging. Just beware that the flight you book may not be the flight you take. During the pandemic, you run a higher risk than usual of the airline rearranging your flight itinerary. So make sure your other bookings, such as accommodations and rental cars, are flexible.
Flexibility for Frugality
The more flexible your dates, the more likely you are to score the best possible airfare deal. Websites like Skyscanner let you select an option for flexible dates, displaying ticket prices for each day on the calendar. For example, it’s usually cheaper to fly the morning of holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Better yet, travel on off-peak weeks. See your family the week before or after Thanksgiving, for instance, or plan your trip in January rather than the last week in December. Beyond saving money, you may find it easier to take time off work outside peak holidays, depending on your career.
If you’re vacationing this holiday season, save even more by trying their flexible destinations feature. Not only can you find cheap routes from your home airport, but it will expose you to destination ideas you never considered. The first time my wife and I used it, Bulgaria popped up as one of the cheapest destinations. After a few minutes of casual Google research, we shrugged and decided to give it a shot. It was one of the best vacations we’ve ever taken, and it cost us a tiny fraction of the other trips we’d considered.
Verify Baggage Policies Before Booking
Airlines have shifted pricing strategies in recent years, offering sizzling low base fares to game the airfare search engines, then piling on fee after fee. One of their favorite add-on fees? Checked luggage.
Some bargain-basement airlines even charge fees for carry-on bags.
Before you book a flight, double-check the baggage policies. Airlines don’t always make this easy on you, sometimes featuring Byzantine baggage policies that include different limits and fees for different routes.
Do your homework and compare the final price, including all fees, not the base fare. And whenever humanly possible, pack light with a carry-on bag only. But don’t pack a thing until you’ve researched how to avoid checked baggage fees.
Book Morning Flights When Possible
Flights before 8am are the least likely to be delayed, according to a study by FiveThirtyEight. From there, average delays get longer throughout the day before reaching a peak around 6pm.
That’s because delays tend to pile up throughout the day, as inbound delayed flights cause delays for subsequent outbound flights, creating a domino effect. And greater-than-usual air traffic over the holidays means more and longer delays.
Because morning flights experience fewer (and shorter) delays on average, they also put you at less risk of missing a connecting flight.
Avoid Tight Layovers
Tight layovers are a recipe for missed connections. When you miss your connecting flight, you submit to the mercy of the airline’s next flight to your destination. That usually means losing a few hours at best and potentially a day or more. Leave yourself at least an hour at major airports when planning your flight routes.
Get to the Airport Earlier Than Usual
You already know you can expect more congestion than usual at the airport during the holidays given the higher traffic volume.
That means it will take longer to do everything, such as park, check your bag or print your boarding pass, get through security, or even wait in line for an overpriced cinnamon bun.
Arrive at the airport at least two hours early for domestic holiday flights out of major airports and three hours ahead of international flights.
Skip that overpriced cinnamon bun entirely and bring your own food. It saves you money and time wandering the airport or exiting the highway. And it’s typically a lot healthier than travel-friendly fast food.
Instead, before you leave, whip up some travel-friendly foods that you can prepack for fast, efficient travel.
Get a Ride
Speaking of parking, don’t do it if you can avoid it.
With air traffic down this year, you probably won’t experience the same parking headaches as most holiday seasons. But as a general rule, airport parking during the holidays is a miserable, crowded, frustrating experience.
Ask a friend or family member for a ride or take a ridesharing service like Uber or Lyft if practical. It can save you both money on airport parking and time wasted taking shuttle buses, which translates to lower stress and smoother travel.
Mind Your Mobile
Printing boarding passes is so 2006.
Download your mobile boarding pass, and keep it handy. Also sign up for flight notifications and alerts if possible. That way, you’ll receive a message if your flight gets delayed or your gate changes.
But leaning so heavily on your cellphone means you need it functioning at all times. First and foremost, charge it fully before leaving home and keep your charger handy in your carry-on. That said, you can’t necessarily count on available outlets. While most airports now offer charging stations, expect extra crowds during the holidays. Bring a fully charged power bank to ensure you always have juice, no matter the circumstances. Try this slim, affordable power bank from LanLuk for worry-free travel.
Pack Noise-Canceling Headphones
I don’t know how I ever traveled without noise-canceling headphones.
Airports and airplanes are noisy places with all the TVs blaring, people yapping, babies screaming, and perpetual overhead announcements. And then there’s the overly talkative person you inevitably get stuck seated beside.
Tune them all out and create your own little bubble of tranquility. If you don’t own a pair yet, check out our picks for the best noise-canceling headphones at every price point.
While you’re at it, bring an eye mask to black out the visuals as well (try this comfortable one from MZOO if you don’t already own one).
Car Rental Tips
When you fly, you often need to rent a car in your destination city. And that comes with its own headaches.
First, book it at the same time you book your flight. Car rental agencies raise prices for closer bookings. Shop around for deals using comparison-shopping tools like Expedia and CarRentals.com, and try price-scouting browser extensions to help you score the best deal.
Book the least expensive car that will serve your needs. Roughly half of my car rentals have been upgraded for free, either because they ran out of cheaper cars or because the rental agent was willing to throw me a nicer car for the heck of it. Offer your most winning smile and ask if they have any free upgrades available.
Watch out for insurance upsells, however. Rental agencies always try to scare you into buying more expensive insurance. Do your homework about exactly what level of protection you need and want, and don’t fall for agency scare tactics.
Before you leave, inspect the vehicle inside and out along with the rental agent. Mark all dings and scratches, no matter how small, so they don’t try to pin them on you upon return.
Road Travel Tips
Driving comes with plenty of its own challenges and quirks.
If your road trip involves spending a night or two along the way, book your accommodations in advance if possible. Otherwise, you could find yourself passing motel after motel with no-vacancy signs lit up, all while you and your family grow increasingly tired and cranky. Knowing each stop along the way helps take stress and pressure off your trip. But also leave early and give yourself plenty of buffer time for unexpected delays so you can reach your booked stays before falling asleep at the wheel.
Annoying as it is to drive while tired, it also adds to the risk of an accident. So don’t let yourself drive so long you have to fight to keep your eyes open.
Also keep an eye on the weather forecast. Getting caught in winter weather not only slows your trip considerably but adds far more risk of an accident. If winter weather closes in, adjust your plans accordingly. Take the time to winterize your car before driving if you plan to travel through colder states.
Never let the tank drop below a quarter full while on road trips. You don’t necessarily know when you’ll see the next gas station, and it may come later than you expect. Even if it’s a route you’re familiar with, if you don’t drive it frequently, do you really know your usual fill-up spot is still in business?
Also, pack plenty of healthy road trip snacks before you depart. Otherwise, you’ll end up eating fast food because that’s what’s available at rest stops. And there’s nothing worse than being trapped in a confined space with a bunch of hangry people, all sporting empty stomachs and short fuses.
Finally, watch out for drunk drivers, including yourself. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says there are more drunk drivers on the road at the holidays than any time of year, making the roads more dangerous than usual after dark. Drive defensively to avoid drunk drivers, and if you plan on tippling a few yourself, bring a designated driver or take a cab or Uber.
First and foremost, book accommodations with flexible cancellation and date-change policies. More flights than usual get delayed during the holidays, and winter weather could prevent you from reaching your booked accommodation on the day you planned. And during the pandemic, airlines keep shifting flight schedules around to minimize empty seats — a recipe for last-minute trip changes.
Think outside the box to save some money while you’re at it. Look into hotel alternatives like Airbnb for a lower-cost, higher-authenticity travel experience. The hotels I’ve stayed at over the years have all blurred together, while far more of my Airbnb stays stand out as memorable.
No matter where you stay, read the customer reviews on your booking platform or Yelp. It’s easier than ever to get the inside scoop on a property with the abundance of transparent user reviews available online.
And double-check the parking availability before booking if you plan to drive or rent a car there. Not every hotel or vacation rental includes private parking.
Personal Privacy & Security
Remember in the movie “Home Alone” when the two burglars knew the light timer schedules for every vacant house in the neighborhood?
You don’t want anyone to know you’re out of town. Consider inviting a house sitter to stay at your house to avoid inviting a break-in. You don’t even need to pay them. Use a service like TrustedHousesitters or MindMyHouse to find a reliable housesitter. The sitters get free accommodations as a creative way to travel the world for free. You can read user reviews about housesitters on these platforms to make sure you feel comfortable with them before entrusting them with your home — and possibly your pets — while you’re away.
Or you could ask a friend or family member to watch your home, whether they stay there or swing by periodically to pick up your mail and feed or walk your pets.
You should also use some sort of home security system, whether a DIY smart home system or a professionally installed and monitored one from a company like Vivint. You can also invest in some smart lights. Today’s smart lights allow programming on a variable schedule, so all your lights don’t pop on at the same time every night.
Keep an eye on your digital security while you’re at it. The massive uptick in transactions during the holidays, both online and off, gives far more opportunities for identity theft. Only shop at reputable online stores and use a virtual private network to add an extra layer of security to your surfing. And follow holiday shopping safety tips like carrying your credit cards in an RFID-blocking wallet. They block the radio-frequency identification information on your credit card so thieves can’t obtain that information wirelessly.
Pet Safety Tips
If you have pets, you must decide whether to bring them, board them, or bring in a petsitter.
Flying with pets adds both cost and complications, and you should avoid it if you can. Driving with pets for a few hours is usually manageable, but you may need to invest in a travel crate or pet seat belt, depending on the size and type of pet. Take care to keep them hydrated, and expect to stop more often, just as you would on long drives with children.
You can also board your pets at a kennel, pet hotel, or veterinary clinic. But it’s not always an ideal solution. While it’s usually cheaper and more comfortable for your pet than flying, it can get pricey. And not all pets enjoy the experience.
To save money, headaches, and stress on your pet, look into a pet sitter instead. You can ask a friend or family member to host or check in on them. If that’s not an option, many house sitting services, TrustedHousesitters or MindMyHouse, can also help you connect with a trustworthy sitter to watch your pets, and you can read reviews from prior pet owners. Your pets get to stay in their home environment rather than a loud, crowded kennel, and you can avoid the stress of traveling long distances with a pet.
The holidays are expensive. In 2020, the National Retail Federation estimates that the average American will spend around $1,000 on gifts and other holiday expenses.
So look for ways to save money this holiday season. That could mean more frugal holiday travel plans, putting a spending limit on gifts, or foregoing gifts altogether.
And stay safe, spend less, and go out of your way to simplify your holiday travels as much as possible. The fewer moving parts you build into your holiday travel, the lower your stress and the more you can enjoy spending time with your loved ones.