During the busy holiday season, planning holiday travel can be stressful, but smart planning can lead to a much smoother travel schedule.

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According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Thanksgiving tops the list for holiday travel in the U.S., followed by the Christmas/New Year’s period.1 All this adds up to increased traffic on the roads and longer lines at the airports, reduced hotel vacancies and hiked prices.

Here’s a guide for when to start planning holiday travel and making those important reservations, as well as some strategies for saving money during the most expensive travel seasons.

When to Book Your Flight

If you’re flying over the holidays, know that prices tend to be higher than usual to account for the increased demand. According to Skyscanner, travelers booking a flight for the Christmas holiday could realize a small savings (about 6%) by making their reservations the week of November 21 (Thanksgiving week). For New Year’s travel, if you wait until December 5 to book your tickets, you may see a savings of about 11%.

Savings strategies: When booking your flight, be sure to utilize the airline or third-party booking site’s calendar matrix to help you determine the best dates to fly in and out. If you have some flexibility, changing your dates by even a day or two can save a lot of money, and those savings really add up if you’re traveling with family. Often, the holiday itself — Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day or New Year’s Day — can be your best bet for the cheapest travel dates.

When to Make Your Hotel Reservation

If you’re booking a hotel reservation and you plan to do it directly through the hotel (as opposed to a third-party site), do it now — regardless of how far away your travel plans are. Here’s why: Many hotels have a generous, penalty-free cancellation policy that allows you to cancel your reservation, in most cases, up to the day of your reservation (be sure to check the individual hotel’s policy first). If a better rate comes along, you can always rebook and cancel your prior reservation without penalty.

Savings strategies: If you want to save even more, check out a blind booking site such as Priceline or Hotwire that enables you to specify star level, amenities and location, and keeps the identity of your hotel a secret until you’ve paid for the reservation. This can be a hit-or-miss proposition, but as long as you stick to higher star levels and ensure that the amenities and location are on the mark, chances are you’ll walk away with a decent property.

When to Book Your Car Rental

Much like your hotel reservation, booking directly through the car rental company usually offers you a guaranteed car reservation with no penalty for canceling if you do so within a certain window of time (again, be sure to check with the company before booking to verify their policies), so book early and then check rates periodically to see whether prices may have changed closer to your travel dates.

Savings strategies: Make sure that when you book your car rental reservation, you utilize all available corporate discounts that are available to you through your workplace, banking institutions, AAA or AARP, discount grocery store (such as Costco and Sam’s Club) and even your alumni organization. These discounts are generally listed on the organization’s website as a “Corporate Discount Code.” You can try a blind booking site for a car rental, too.

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In securing your seat at the holiday table, it pays to book early and book smart.


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