By Bill Camarda | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor
5 Min Read | December 20, 2019 in Money
Traveling during the holidays is challenging—but there are ways you can make it easier and less expensive.
It helps to carefully plan how and when you’ll travel—and include mental preparation. A positive attitude can work wonders against an unexpected holiday travel setback.
Don’t forget to consider all the ways your travel rewards credit card can help.
Travel is notoriously stressful and expensive during the holiday season. Enormous numbers of Americans are traveling: more than 55,000,000 at Thanksgiving1 and likely more than twice that many during Christmas week.2 Everything’s overcrowded, and the laws of supply-and-demand drive travel costs higher.
But there are ways you can make holiday traveling more joyful. It takes planning, continuously looking for opportunities to save, getting mentally ready—and making the most of your travel rewards credit card benefits.
Advance planning pays off. Here are some key planning considerations for your holiday travels:
Departure & Return Times: Work and family schedules may make it hard to take advantage of the best holiday travel dates for your mental health, but you can do your best within those constraints. For Thanksgiving, the worst time to drive or fly is usually Wednesday afternoon. For Christmas, it’s usually Christmas Eve. In both cases, if you’re able to leave a day or two earlier, you’re better off. Christmas is on a Wednesday this year (2019), so it’s a bit trickier: departures will be spread across the week, because employer and school schedules vary. But one relatively peaceful time to fly cross-country will likely be overnight Christmas Eve into Christmas morning. Budget Travel recommends, “fly early or drive late: the first flight of the day is often the most affordable” adding that flight delays are less likely, including delays on connecting flights. If you’re driving, do the opposite: “hit the road after dark, when the roads are almost always emptier. Let the kids sleep in the back seat…”3
Ship Ahead: If you’re flying, consider shipping large gifts beforehand instead of dragging them around—and don’t giftwrap anything TSA might want to inspect. Speaking of TSA: the myTSA app provides current crowdsourced information on security waits at many airports.4
Join Security Accelerators: You can reduce wait time by applying for these two programs: Global Entry (for speeding through customs when returning from abroad) and TSA PreCheck (for speeding through security in any U.S. airport). Some travel rewards cards will reimburse your application fees if you pay with their card.5 Here’s one more security line tip: if you’re unsure which line is shortest, take a hard left—most people go the other way.6
Pack Light: Packing light saves time and, nowadays, it saves money, too. More of us are learning to tightly roll our clothes and scale back unnecessary toiletries to avoid checked baggage fees. Know that a free checked bag is a benefit available from some travel rewards credit cards. Of course, if you’re traveling with kids, do sweat the small stuff: bring games, media, and snacks to keep them occupied when planes run late. At the holidays, they often do, especially at busy airports like Chicago Midway and O’Hare, Newark, Denver, JFK, and Houston.7
Be Prepared: If you’ll be on crowded roads in inclement weather, be ready for emergencies. Many travel rewards credit cards offer roadside assistance, but not all offer the same services. For example, some offer “premium” roadside assistance including towing up to 10 miles, flat tire changes, delivery of fuel if you run out, and help if you’ve locked your key in your vehicle.8
In addition to traveling very early or very late to save money, travel rewards credit cards can offer good ways to reduce your holiday travel costs. You can use your travel rewards card to maximize points or cash back on travel while you’re adding points to any travel loyalty clubs you’re enrolled in. If you don’t already have a specific destination in mind, travel search engines can help you discover destinations that offer the best deals—right now.9 Especially if you don’t need to be warm, international destinations are often cheaper at Thanksgiving and around New Year’s.10
Then, look for smaller savings. Certain premium travel rewards cards will subsidize your ride-share to the airport. And remember, snacks and drinks will cost you more in the airport than if you buy them at home. Instead of buying water while awaiting your flight, you can take an empty clear water bottle through TSA checkpoints and fill it at the gate.11 Of course, if you have a premium travel rewards card, you may qualify for snacks and drinks in a quiet, relaxing airport lounge.12
Learn to expect the unexpected. If something doesn’t go as planned, years from now you’ll probably laugh about it—so save time and laugh about it now. It helps to try out a few simple breathing or relaxation exercises—they’re great to have in your back-pocket during any bumps in the road.
For long flights, wear comfortable clothing, and bring noise-canceling headphones and eye masks to clear away distractions. Many people also swear by neck pillows and compression socks. And most experts will tell you to avoid too much alcohol.13 Consider checking whether your travel rewards card will help you qualify for an upgrade to a higher-class airline seat with more room and calming amenities (with fewer business travelers at the holidays, you might get lucky).
If you know you’ll need some time alone while at a large gathering of family or friends, plan ahead. For example, you might schedule a workout at your hotel gym, or as a guest at another branch of a gym you’ve joined. Get to know your fellow travelers, too: holiday travel tends to push everyone’s hot buttons, and you’ll all probably be happier if you know them and you’re ready to cut everyone some slack. Finally, focus on why you’re traveling: the people you want to see, the places you want to visit.
Traveling during the holidays will always have its challenges. But if you plan ahead, look creatively for savings, focus on your mental well-being, and use your travel rewards credit card wisely, it might be a lot more rewarding.
2 “2019 Holiday Travel Report,” NerdWallet
3 “7 Easy Holiday Travel Tips,” Budget Travel
4 “TSA App Might Help Foresee Shutdown-Related Security Delays,” The Points Guy
5 “The Top 7 Cards for Global Entry and TSA Precheck,” The Points Guy
6 “Smart Tips to Take the Stress Out of Holiday Travel,” Real Simple
7 “Best and Worst Airports for Holiday Delays and Cancellations,” Magnify Money
8 “The Best Credit Cards for Premium Roadside Assistance Coverage,” Upgraded Points
9 “How to Use the Google Flights Explore Map to Find the Cheapest Place to Fly,” Scott’s Cheap Flights
10 “How to score the best deals on last-minute holiday travel,” CreditCards.com
11 “10 Airport Hacks to Remember Before Your Next Flight,” Fox News
13 “How to Survive a Long-Haul Flight (or any flight, for that matter),” Lindsay Silberman