It’s not quite Christmas in July, but we at Out Travel the System definitely want to make sure you’re as prepared as possible for your holiday travel plans this year.
Between anecdotal evidence at airports across the country and what we’re seeing in Expedia‘s booking data, the holiday travel period this year is shaping up to be one of the busiest in quite some time.
Where can you still book, how can you skip some lineups, and are there any ways to save some money while still getting the experience you want – we tackle all of these questions and more.
Join host Nisreene Atassi and Out Travel the System favorites Christie Hudson, Sr. PR Manager for Expedia, and Katherine Fan, Sr. Writer at NerdWallet for a wonderful conversation about holiday travel, and traditions new and old. In addition to reminding you how to pack your patience – something you may have gotten out of the habit of doing in this extended period of limited travel – they’ll dig into all of the reasons why holiday travel is absolutely worth exploring now.
Holiday Travel Hacks – the Can’t Miss Listen of 2021 Travel
Nisreene Atassi: I know it seems weird to be talking about traveling for the holidays after a global pandemic, but it’s absolutely clear that friends and family cannot wait to be reconnected with each other, and the holidays are the perfect time of year for that. Having spent the majority of my life in Chicago with my family close by, I never actually had to worry about traveling for the holidays. But since moving to Seattle, and now that I have a little one of my own, it’s a whole new world of travel that I need to learn how to navigate. Luckily, I’ve got just the people to help me do that. I’m Nisreene Atassi, and this is Out Travel the System.
Nisreene Atassi: I’ve confessed to this before for our regular listeners of the show, I do not normally do a ton of planning ahead when it comes to travel. In fact, I’m pretty sure I straight up said that I am terrible at planning ahead, but it’s becoming very clear that when it comes to traveling for the holidays, planning in advance is key and this year is going to be no exception. With such an important topic, I wanted to make sure that I brought two of my Out Travel the System veterans along with me for the discussion. You all know Christie Hudson, senior PR manager for Expedia and data guru. Hi, Christie. Welcome to the show.
Christie Hudson: Hello, thanks for having me.
Nisreene Atassi: Also here with us, once again, is Katherine Fan, formerly of The Points Guy and now a senior writer for NerdWallet. Katherine is one of the most savvy travelers I know, So I am super excited to have her back on the show. Hi, Katherine.
Katherine Fan: Hi, Nissy and Christie. It’s so great to speak with you again.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay, Christie. I feel like this is going to be the question on the tip of the tongue for all of our listeners right now. Why on earth are we doing an episode about holiday travel now? Back me up a little bit on this one, please.
Christie Hudson: Travel is absolutely bonkers right now. You don’t even need to have access to Expedia data to be able to confirm that, all you need to have done is been to a hotel lobby or an airport in the last couple of months, you will see how much that pent- up demand is really just resulting in people flocking back to their vacations. Families weren’t together last year for the most part, especially those who have to travel long distances to be together, so every indication we have right now is that we need to expect that holiday travel is not only going to be just as busy as it was pre- pandemic, but probably even busier.
Nisreene Atassi: That makes sense. Katherine, in some of our previous episodes where we’ve had you on, you’ve talked to us about how you plan trips almost a year out, but that you’ve also been really good at snagging some last minute deals. Given what we’re seeing today, how are you thinking about planning for travel in the last couple of months of the year?
Katherine Fan: I love spontaneity. I love not feeling tied down to specific plans and that’s a big part of what typically brings me joy when I travel. I might book something 11 months in advance just because I found a good deal, but I leave all the rest of the details until the last minute. Where I’ve seen the most change during the past year or some has been – I never really rented cars before this past year, but over the last six to eight months, I have made four different car rentals. I think that’s one of the things that I’m not the only person who’s made that major change. There’s a car shortage across the nation that we’ve never seen before. My best friend is getting married in Hawaii after having to reschedule her wedding from last year, and we were already getting reminders to book our car rentals. Set up a reservation just in case. You can always cancel it, there’s no penalty for doing that, but if you don’t have something in the works, it could be really, really hard to get a car last minute for the busy holiday season.
Christie Hudson: Yeah, that’s such an interesting one, because typically when we talk about holiday travel, it’s always about flights, for the most part. I don’t think we’ve ever had an instance where we had to warn people to think about car rentals this far in advance. That’s always an afterthought, you can always just do that a week before your trip.
Katherine Fan: Day of even.
Christie Hudson: It was never a big deal, yeah. I think that’s a big one that a lot of people might not even think about.
Katherine Fan: Exactly, and especially if you haven’t been on the road. I’ve honestly found myself out of practice with traveling. If anyone else likes answers as much as I do, just the why behind it, here’s a really quick tidbit that I thought was interesting, but part of the reason why car rental companies were able to stay afloat for the most part during the pandemic was by selling off part of their fleets to people who were trying to get cars for the first time. As a result, now that their demand is back, they have less cars than usual and way more people than ever before seeking to rent cars when they might have just taken public transportation or Ubers in the past.
Christie Hudson: On top of that, apparently there’s a chip shortage just in the car industry in general, so it’s not like manufacturing a bunch of cars can be sped up at the moment either. It’s interesting that all of these things have come to a head.
Nisreene Atassi: I want get to some of the juicy facts that I feel like some of the listeners really need to know. Christie, are we seeing any sort of really high demand in specific destinations that you think would be valuable for our listeners to know as they’re thinking about holiday travel?
Christie Hudson: Yes. Usually when we look at the data this far in advance, what we look at is how are bookings tracking. I think that’s one of the biggest clues we have right now that the holiday travel period is going to be incredibly busy. There are a few places that are already seeing two times the number of bookings that they normally would at this point in the year.
Some of those places are mostly warm weather, there’s a lot of Mexico, Cancun is just off the charts in terms of demand, Hawaii, both Oahu and Maui are gearing up to be very popular for December, Punta Cana, but it’s not just those beach destinations. It’s also places that people haven’t been able to go to because attractions have been closed, like Orlando, Los Angeles, New York, all of those places are going to have a lot to offer this holiday season. People are really eager to reclaim those experiences that they maybe missed during 2020.
Nisreene Atassi: What are some destinations that you think people might want to consider for holiday travel this year that perhaps wouldn’t have necessarily been on their radar?
Christie Hudson: If you were considering LA, Orange County, maybe try San Diego instead. Instead of New York, where you can actually still get some deals but it might be pretty booked up, try Chicago. Instead of Palm Springs, which has been really popular throughout the entire pandemic and throughout the first half of this year, try a place like Phoenix, where you’re still getting the warm weather, but it’s not quite as resort- y. It’s also a great jumping off point to smaller day trips in surrounding areas. Even in Mexico, if Mexico’s high on your list, Play del Carmen’s looking a bit cheaper than Cancun, for example.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah. We’ve talked in the past about some tips and tricks to navigate holiday travel. I’d love to hear both of your perspectives on what tips or tricks you can give our listeners on how to navigate that, really specific to this year.
Christie Hudson: It always makes sense to keep an eye on what the busiest travel days are and try to avoid them. I mean, the reason they’re the busiest travel days is because they tend to be the most convenient for most people to travel so I understand it’s not everyone who’s going to have the ability to plan their trip on different days, but if you can, I think that’s really where you’ll start to see the savings, regardless of how busy the airport is, regardless of how high the prices are. For example, Christmas is on a Saturday this year, I would expect that that’s going to make Friday the most popular day to depart, even though it’s Christmas Eve, so maybe bump that one day up to Thursday. Those are going to be your busiest days. My secret tip, which does not work for everyone, is travel on the holiday.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, you do that a lot, don’t you?
Christie Hudson: We do. In case you don’t remember me from previous episodes, we have family in other states so we have traveled for the holidays I think every year for like the past 10 years, and now we do it with kids too. But we tend to travel on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, go to Texas, and then we come back a week later on New Year’s Day. We just have Christmas sometime in between there. We do Christmas with family locally before that, then we leave, we do Christmas a couple of days after Christmas. It kind of just makes the whole Christmas season a little bit longer. You don’t have that one day high and then you come down afterwards. The airports are much less busy. I’m a big proponent of that.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, I love that tip.
Katherine Fan: My family is pretty non- traditional so we’ve always been pretty flexible on what the actual day we celebrate is. If you come from a family that’s super traditional and you’ve been looking for an opportunity to change it up, the great thing about the pandemic, looking for some silver linings here, is that everyone’s used to everything being canceled at this point. I think maybe grandma, for instance, would be a little more flexible to the, ” But we always do this on New Year’s Eve,” or this is our Christmas tradition or Thanksgiving, I think this is the one time where they would be more flexible to the idea of, ” Hey, let’s try something different just to see if it works.” You tend to get the better deals the couple of days right after a big holiday. Nobody’s really traveling that first week of January, for instance, or the couple of days between Thanksgiving and the beginning of December usually tend to be really fun.
Christie Hudson: I love the idea of taking this opportunity to reset traditions a little bit. We were having the same conversation, why does it make sense for a family of four with two small kids to get on a plane to visit the grandparents? Why can’t they get on a plane? I don’t know, we might be mixing it up this year. We might be trying some new things, and that means we will be very flexible with everybody’s schedules if they can meet us halfway on maybe trying something new.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah.
Katherine Fan: Now that home rentals are more popular as well, if traditions have to get changed up, maybe it would help to be in a neutral space. You would have the opportunity to shop for Thanksgiving turkeys and sides together and to prep them all in a place that’s new.
Nisreene Atassi: Christie, you are typically booking your holiday travel at the end of September. In prior years, our Expedia data has shown us that booking for both Christmas and Thanksgiving has yielded the best savings when you did it around the September timeframe. Are things shaping up to be similar this year?
Christie Hudson: We will see a lot of variation depending on where you’re going. A lot of airlines have been really scrambling to restart some routes that used to be popular. There’s just a lot of things up in the air right now, forgive the pun, in terms of what air travel is going to look like. That timeframe probably still holds. Typically, when we look at the best time to book anything, it’s really about 30 to 40 days out will get you kind of the best average savings. For Christmas and Thanksgiving, we usually see that timeline stretch a bit, 60 days out is usually the sweet spot.
I will say though, this is not the time to book super restrictive, non- refundable fares. Even the best laid plans can get disrupted by something completely unforeseen. If you’re going to be booking early, the key is to make sure you’re booking a refundable hotel rate so that you can cancel it without any penalty or change it if you need to change your dates around. Don’t book super basic economy that doesn’t allow you to bring an extra bag without paying fees or choose a seat. I just think that we need to make sure we’re balancing that desire to save a few dollars with the common sense of just being able to keep our flexibility.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah. Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense.
Katherine Fan: An easy tip is if the airline changes your flight within a certain window, then you are eligible for a refund or a reschedule at no cost a lot of the time.
Nisreene Atassi: Katherine, from your perspective, are there any destinations that you think would likely be less popular in the December timeframe that you think might be worth travelers setting their eyes on?
Katherine Fan: I would advise people be creative about the way that you consider a destination. For me personally, a lot of the times when I’m with family, I do a lot less true sightseeing than I normally would. Maybe it’s a good time to plant your fun, exotic, adventurous travel for another time outside of the true holiday seasons and dates themselves and find something that would be really fun and memorable for your family, especially after not having seen each other for some time.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, that makes sense.
Christie Hudson: I have a theory that because we haven’t been able to take all the normal vacations and trips that we usually have, that people like me are going to be like, ” I’m not wasting a vacation to go to Houston and stay at my in- law’s house.” If I’m going to get on a flight with my kids, we’re going somewhere cool and everyone can come meet us there. I think we’re vacation deprived and so some of those go- visit- grandma trips just might not sound as alluring.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah.
Christie Hudson: I do wonder if people will be taking their holidays to the beach this year.
Katherine Fan: This is the first time in history that a lot of people who did not normally get to work remote have the freedom of flexibility to do that again, to add in a little bit of that work and play. Maybe getting a beach house for a couple of weeks and building in some work time and some school time is a really effective way for people to catch up and not use up all of that vacation.
Nisreene Atassi: I do feel like ‘bleisure’ is going to come back with a vengeance and mixing business and leisure travel together to really maximize your experience. This episode is a little bit different than we thought. We’re really talking about doing holiday travel just totally differently and really departing from the norm, which I absolutely love and I hope our listeners do as well. I am feeling the holly jolly travel spirit already and we’re only halfway through this episode, so stick around for more holiday travel tips. We’ll see you on the other side.
Nisreene Atassi: I’m Nisreene Atassi, And this is Out Travel the System. Whether international travel is on your horizon or you’re keeping to domestic locations, it’s always the right time to dream about your next trip. Gather up all of the insider tips and tricks we feature on our episodes and use them when the time is right for you to travel. From the unexpected, like the charm of experiencing winter conditions at a beach to the aspirational options of our Unique Accommodations episode, we have it all. Stay tuned into what’s happening in the world of travel by liking and subscribing to Out Travel the System on your favorite podcast player.
Nisreene Atassi: Welcome back to Out Travel the System. We’re here with Expedia’s senior PR manager, Christie Hudson, and recurring guest, Katherine Fan. Some people won’t have traveled during the December holidays for two years at the very least. What are some things that you think people may have forgotten about that experience? Katherine, let’s start with you.
Katherine Fan: It’s not a bad time to go back to the absolute basics. Double check that you know where your passport is, double check the expiration date. A lot of destinations won’t let you in if you don’t have a minimum of three to six months before the expiration date.
I recently flew up to Tahoe. The airport looked busier than it had most Thanksgiving weekends of my experience and it was just a Thursday, it wasn’t a holiday weekend. I was pretty shocked to see a 25, 30- minute line for regular security. This is not a bad time to bump up your TSA and global entry renewals if that’s coming up.
Nisreene Atassi: Oh yeah, for sure. I just got back from a trip to New York. I flew out on like a Monday midday from Seattle, did not expect there to be big lines. The TSA line was absolutely insane. I think a big part of that is, number one, we’re still getting used to staffing up based off of the new demand, but number two, people are just traveling literally like there’s no tomorrow. Had I not had my TSA pre- check, there’s absolutely no way I would have made my flight.
Christie Hudson: If I could just add on. Curbside check- in, what a beautiful thing, especially if you are traveling with kids and you have two car seats and you have three luggage and you have a stroller. Curbside check- in, carry cash, tip generously.
To your point about re- upping on your TSA pre- check or global entry, I actually tested out Clear for the first time this last trip. You could do a 30- day trial, and I had a couple of trips coming up so it felt worth it. Each adult can bring a child in with them, so my husband and I both signed up for Clear. It took mere minutes at the airport to get our retinas scanned and our DNA sold to someone probably, I don’t know, but it was very worth it. We got to breeze right through. We had our own dedicated ticket checker, they walked us by them. It was pretty slick. I don’t know, check that out too.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah.
Katherine Fan: A lot of the premium travel credit cards will offer you a credit for Clear.
Nisreene Atassi: You know what, I did see that actually.
Christie Hudson: The travel process involves so much waiting as it is. If you can eliminate at least a small piece of the wait time for your kids, everyone’s going to be happier.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah.
What are some secrets that we want people to remember about traveling during the holidays, especially when it comes to it being such a stressful time, because I think we have, to a certain extent, probably forgotten how to behave.
Christie Hudson: I’m really just going to a place of remembering my last couple trips. I think we’ve forgotten how to be around other humans a little bit in the last year. We have to remember to be kind, not only to the staff who’s working around the clock and dealing with grumpy people, but other travelers. You may not like sitting next to the mom and the baby, but I promise you, she is more stressed out than you are by it. We’ve just got to have some empathy.
Katherine Fan: Nobody expects perfection, especially from children. Maybe when we’re traveling, I don’t have kids, but I try to go out of my way to be kind to the moms. I have seen moms pull off some extra superhuman feats this year.
Nisreene Atassi: I think the preparation piece is really, really important because a lot of things have changed. Delta did a really great example of this. Before my flight, I got an email from them that said, ” Here’s what you can expect on your flight tomorrow.” Number one, they’re going to give me a Purell wipe cloth to wipe down my seat, they’re going to make me wear a mask. I knew, okay, I need to bring my own snacks with me, I’m going to bring my own water bottle and those types of things, which I think is really helpful. Give yourself plenty of time. That is always the most critical thing.
Christie Hudson: Well, especially if you’re a seasoned traveler, or were prior to last year, you probably wing it a bit more because you know what you can get on the way or on the plane. Just like you said, we had a recent situation where if you did not pre- order your food the day before the flight, they straight up didn’t have it for you. There was no food available on a six- plus hour flight. If we hadn’t packed a small refrigerator basically, full of food for our kids, we probably would have starved.
Nisreene Atassi: There you go.
I want to switch gears a little bit, because I think packing for the holiday time can also so be stressful.
Christie Hudson: Yep. We ship the majority of the gifts or we decide on gifts that are not physical, so either they’re gift cards or their experiences we’re going to have together, or when we’re feeling really overwhelmed with stuff, we do maybe a donation or something like that, which really eases everything. But we ship most of the gifts, we ask that they ship most of the gifts to us at home as well. It’s a little tough for the kids, I would say, because they want things to open on the day of. We just really try to be clear about what we’re going to have space to bring back. If you bring gifts through TSA that are wrapped, they will unwrap the presents, which blew my mind. Also, I hate wrapping presents. I would cry if somebody unwrapped the presents that I painstakingly wrapped. Don’t do that, save yourself the tears.
Nisreene Atassi: What are some things that you think would be worth purchasing in advance that might upgrade their trip?
Katherine Fan: Whether that’s early boarding, an actual flight upgrade in and of itself, this is a great time to do that. Especially if you struggle with anxiety, and who doesn’t after this last year, it can be so easy to get overwhelmed, especially when you’re going through more hassle than ever to get through security. It just gives you a little bit of extra peace of mind to have a minute to yourself before you have to get going.
Another tip I would have is it really pays off to sign up for the memberships for airlines, for hotels, for rental car companies, because even if you don’t ever think you’re going to reach enough travel to earn status, a lot of them will offer you basic little bitty upgrades. Coming back to rental cars, a lot of times people have reported saving an extra 45 minutes to an hour even. A lot of the rental car companies will allow you to sign up for a basic membership and in exchange, they’ll already have your car ready for you.
Nisreene Atassi: And they have dedicated lines for their members as well, yeah.
What about traveling to and from the airports and things like that? Because Ubers and Lyfts, car shares in general, have actually gotten a little bit more expensive and so it’s no longer the most cost efficient way. Purchasing maybe airport parking in advance or even, and this I feel like is an old school mentality, where people used to take limos or car service to the airports, any sort of feedback or commentary on that kind of stuff.
Christie Hudson: Yeah. Earlier in the episode I mentioned that I really liked to fly on the holiday itself, the one big drawback of that is a lot of people will already be through your airport. What that means is the car lots surrounding the airport, the park- and- fly type of places, they’re going to be completely full. You definitely need to book your spot in advance, because there was one year where we had to park in the airport lot, which wasn’t the end of the world, but it was quite a bit more expensive than it would have been if we had had one of those long term lots.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah. The holidays can be a really stressful time to travel. I’d love to hear from both of you why you do travel during the holidays instead of maybe staying home or doing a staycation.
Christie Hudson: I love traveling for the holidays, personally. First of all, Christmas is just one of my favorite times of the year. It could be very cheesy of me, but I love Christmas movies, I love the entire season, I love decorating my house. I love watching the Grinch, all of them, like 19, 000 times because my kids love them so much. What traveling during the holidays allows for me is for that feeling and the celebratory spirit to be bigger than just one day or two days.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m home, we’re kind of done with presents and stockings and all that by like 1: 00 PM and then, what, you’re just sitting around. Instead, we are packing up to head to a different destination the next day and we have all of that to look forward to. It really just turns a two- day celebration into usually like a seven- day celebration. I love it and I love being together with everybody.
Katherine Fan: For me, I’m a diehard extrovert, so I enjoy seeing the flight attendants. I love talking to them about what their plans are when they’re off for the holidays. I think a lot of the times they’ve appreciated that as well. Everyone is so stressed a lot of the time when traveling for the holidays that we forget they’re people, and they’re also people who have been giving up chances to be with their families to help us get where we need to go. I love bringing a little bit extra of something sweet, whether it’s chocolate or spending a little time saying hi to them.
It’s a good reminder for me as well. I grew up overseas and my parents are usually overseas still. For me, the chance to travel over the holidays is usually my only time to see them throughout the year and nothing makes me appreciate that more than seeing everyone else headed toward people they love as well.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah. It’s so funny that you brought that up, giving a little treat to the flight attendants, because I actually saw that for the first time on a recent trip and it was the sweetest thing. It was just this family brought pre- packaged chocolates and they gave it to the flight attendants and they said, ” We just wanted to thank you because we know this is really hard.” The smiles on their faces, it really seemed to transform them. It’s these small little things that we can do that go above and beyond as travelers that actually has a really, really big impact. That was the first time I had ever seen anybody do that and now I feel like I need to do that every time I travel. I’m glad you brought that up.
Well, I feel like these have been some really, really amazing tips. I feel like there’s a lot for people to work with here as they start planning their holiday travel. Do either of you have your holiday plans sorted yet, or are you still working through those?
Christie Hudson: This has given me a ton of inspiration. I feel like I’m going to talk to my in- laws and be like, ” Guys, this is really a great opportunity for us to refresh some of these traditions.” I’m going to be quoting my friend Katherine over here and throwing out some new ideas. I think next year when I’m on this podcast, you may hear a different travel version of our holidays.
Nisreene Atassi: Wow.
Katherine Fan: I think we’re also still figuring out what is our new normal. I have found a lot of really randomly surprisingly good deals, which you know is my jam. I’ve actually found sites like Expedia to be very, very useful over this past year. They often have some of the biggest group rates that are available that travel companies are willing to work with, so keep an eye out for those because that can really change your plans very quickly.
Nisreene Atassi: Perfect, love that. All right. Well that about does it for this early holiday episode of Out Travel the System. We hope that we’ve been able to give you all some really good tips to help you put the wheels in motion to get an early head start on your travel wishlist for this year. Thank you to my special little holiday travel elves, Christie and Katherine, for helping to round out this episode.
Christie Hudson: Thanks so much.
Katherine Fan: Thank you.
Nisreene Atassi: Christie Hudson is a senior PR manager for Expedia and Katherine Fan is a senior writer for NerdWallet. I’m Nisreene Atassi, and this is Out Travel the System brought to you by Expedia. Happy travels. Out Travel the System is brought to you by Expedia. Our showrunner and executive producer is Claudia Kwan, our associate producer is Katie Doten, with sound engineering from Jill Constantine. Additional production support is provided by JAR Audio.