Holiday Booking Travel Hacks
When’s the best time to fly around Thanksgiving? How do you get the whole family (plus presents) to Christmas on time? Our team is unwrapping holiday travel tips on this episode of Out Travel The System. Join our guest host, Jordi Lippe-McGraw, Expedia data expert, Para Raman, and queen of family travel, Christie Hudson as they spill the details on all of your burning holiday travel questions — from when you need to push “buy now” on that Thanksgiving flight to spicing the holidays up with alternative travel destinations instead of the same ole trip to grandma’s house.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Both Thanksgiving and Christmas are right around the corner. That usually means the old bank account is already taking a beating. So why not save some money on your travel plans and beat the crowds? Want to know how we’ve got all the holiday hacks for the best time to fly and the cheapest time to buy? I’m Jordi Lippe-McGraw filling in for Nisreene Atassi and I’ll be your guest host for this episode of Out Travel The System.
Helping me cut through the crowds and cut to the savings are two guests. Christie Hudson is the Head of Public Relations for Expedia North America so she’s no stranger to slinging travel tips, plus her in-laws live out of state so she’s a seasoned holiday traveler along with her husband and two small kiddos. Para Raman is Expedia’s Director of Data Science. He and his wife live in Seattle with their beagle mix but they usually spend the holidays with his in-laws. Para is big on finding data nuggets of travel gold and easing the stress of holiday travel.
Why don’t we start off a little bit by telling me some personal tales about what you’ve learned from traveling during the busiest times of the year? Christie, I know you have some great tips and some stories from all of your holiday traveling.
Christie Hudson: Yeah I was actually thinking about the tips before this episode and I realized that I have traveled every Thanksgiving and Christmas for the last 10 years with the exception of last year, I was very pregnant so I got to stay home and experience what that’s like, but otherwise I’ve always been in the airport for these busy times of year so I feel like I have some scars to share but I also have come to like it. It’s become part of my holiday experience.
You know for me there are a couple of things that we do because I’m, as you said, I’m traveling with a husband and two small children under the age of three. So, for Thanksgiving, we tend to avoid the busiest travel days like the plague. They are super expensive. They are busy. You’re probably going to experience long lines, delays and, with small kids, that’s just not something I’m willing to deal with.
So, this year we’re going to Austin and we did a lot of searching around to see what the best deals were the week of Thanksgiving and we landed on leaving Monday ahead of Thanksgiving and coming back the following Monday. I know not everybody is able to do that, we just tack on a little bit of vacation to it as well to kind of stretch the time, but it gives us a chance to see Austin a little bit. We’ll stay in a hotel for a few days and then we’ll head out to a vacation rental with the rest of our extended family.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Para, what have you learned about traveling during the holidays?
Para Raman: I have a very similar experience in terms of spending the last 10 years or so traveling during the Thanksgiving holiday. The first five-plus years were in grad school and it was with friends and mostly road trips. So I didn’t have to book flights and all that. But the last few years after getting married my wife and I, we go to Salt Lake City for Thanksgiving and Christmas and I guess my flight travel experience is a little bit lighter than Christie’s, but one of the things that I learned very similar to her is not to fly the Wednesday or the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Usually what I’ve done is to rack up a couple of vacation days ahead of time and I’ve seen often much cheaper flights if I fly out the Friday or the Saturday before Thanksgiving. And just take the whole week off.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: And do you guys follow similar tips for Christmas and New Year’s for Christmas?
Christie Hudson: We tend to travel on Christmas Day actually. So we do Christmas Eve with my family in Seattle and then Christmas day we usually take a mid-morning flight to Houston to see my husband’s side of the family. And I think that a lot of people would probably find that to be the least festive way that you could possibly spend Christmas but actually for us now that we’ve been doing it a couple of years in a row we find that it kind of extends the holiday a little bit. I feel like the TSA agents at the airport are actually super friendly on Christmas. The other travelers are in a really good mood. It’s actually like this rare bubble in air travel where everybody’s kind of feeling festive. So we do that, we leave Christmas day we get in and we usually celebrate Christmas a day or two after Christmas and then we fly back on New Year’s Eve. Again because I have two small children and I’m not exactly like going out on the town it’s more of a nice bottle of champagne at 7:45 p.m. before I go to bed. So that works really well for us. It’s a lot less stressful to travel and it’s a lot cheaper because not a ton of people want to travel on the day of.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: I actually always travel after New Year’s. My husband and I always take the two weeks after the holiday to go and take our longer vacation of the year because the prices are just so much less expensive for our honeymoon. Actually, we went to Tanzania right after New Year’s and no one was traveling and so the price for our safari was cut in half which is a huge savings for us. And we’ve done it a few times. We went to Australia after New Year’s. This year I think we’re planning to go somewhere too. And I also will drive or fly on the actual holiday when possible just like you Christie because on Thanksgiving Day or on Christmas Day or on New Year’s Day there is no one on the roads you can get there so quick and I have a little one too, 15 months old, and you want to make those car rides and plane rides and times at the airport as stress-free as possible.
Para, what do you do for Christmas and New Year’s in terms of travel?
Para Raman: I don’t have the luxury of traveling on Christmas Day. My wife is German and her parents celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. So we open presents on Christmas Eve and they usually like us to be there at least a day before. One thing though that’s nice about being in the tech industry is there is a general sort of code freeze that happens during the end of the holiday season and not much is getting done anyway. So we usually get to take a couple of days off and try to find a good balance between price and number of days I have to take off before Christmas. I’ll usually fly out on the 21st or 22nd. That’s seemed to work for me.
Christie Hudson: Jordi, it’s interesting that you say you take your kind of longer vacation of the year in the early part of the year. We looked at the data for the cheapest time to go to a lot of destinations and just like you said January and February are actually a really fantastic time to travel. Paris is dirt cheap in February if you don’t mind like bringing a jacket maybe your umbrella. I mean it’s a great time to go and still eat and see the museums and everything else so it’s a super-smart tip.
Para Raman: That’s my personal experience as well. Just traveling back home to India I’ve always found tickets that were a couple of thousand dollars or more if I fly November or December but then if it’s mid-January or late January it’s down to $900 or so. So that’s quite a bit of savings on tickets for larger families, it works out really well.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Para I would really like to combine some of these tips that we’re talking about like what we’ve learned personally with some of the secrets that the data reveals. So, I think the number one question that’s on most people’s minds when it comes to booking holiday travel for Thanksgiving and for Christmas and that is when is the best date to book a flight?
Para Raman: We went back and looked at the data that we have and typically booking anywhere between two weeks and a month out gets you pretty decent savings. It’s about 5-10% for Thanksgiving and about 15% for Christmas. Seattle and San Francisco are classic examples of where we find a lot of travelers going from Seattle to San Francisco and vice versa and there’s a lot of business travelers and leisure travelers as well. So we looked at this one particular example for Thanksgiving travel and a typical price for Thanksgiving travel leaving Wednesday which often is the most expensive is about $250 if you buy 30 days to 60 days out but it goes up to $450 or more and spikes even higher a week before Thanksgiving so buy early.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: For Thanksgiving what would be the best itinerary in terms of which days to fly going back to the same example of Seattle San Francisco?
Para Raman: I’ve seen this pattern across different routes as well the absolute best way to fly for this particular route was to leave the Friday before Thanksgiving. So take two or three days off and then come back the Saturday or Sunday after Thanksgiving. It didn’t really change the prices by a whole lot coming Saturday but this was the absolute cheapest price. The roundtrip price was about $190, it hovered around that price all the way till about two weeks before Thanksgiving. But if you fly the Wednesday before Thanksgiving your average prices are about $400 and it gets to $600+ a week before Thanksgiving.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: What would be the best itinerary then for Christmas? Because obviously Christmas falls on a different day of the week each year.
Para Raman: I think Christmas gets a little bit tricky. Different days of the week have different prices that are set by the airlines. But you should book typically about two weeks before Christmas which gets you better savings than the last minute booking.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: So is the cheapest day to fly on Christmas Eve?
Parasan Raman: The cheapest day to fly is actually Christmas Day. Christmas Eve gets a little bit expensive. There’s a lot of people traveling on Christmas Eve. It’s significantly cheaper to fly Christmas Day.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: What does the data reveal about avoiding crowds as well as saving some money?
Christie Hudson: Well, the busiest day of the entire year to travel is the day before Thanksgiving as you would expect. For Christmas, the busiest day to fly is the Saturday before regardless of what day of the week Christmas falls on. That is the busiest day the last couple of years running.
Para Raman: When I looked at the data, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving has roughly twice as many travelers that have booked through Expedia compared to Thanksgiving Day and similar stats for a Saturday before Christmas and the day of Christmas.
Christie Hudson: Twice as many people on TSA lines sounds like something I would like to avoid personally.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Since you have both traveled so much during the holidays, I know your cost-saving tips but I would love to learn some of your tips about how you also avoid the crowds during the holidays. Do you have any sort of habits that you use at the airport? How do you make that process less stressful?
Christie Hudson: Yeah I mean one great tip is to have your partner drop you off with the kids and all the suitcases and then to proceed to walk through the airport as if you’re by yourself because then people help you! And sometimes they let you get to the front of the line because they take pity on you. And then when your partner shows up, you get some dirty looks. But no that’s not actually an official tip.
One of the things that we are definitely careful about when we’re planning is the type of fare we book and the itinerary we book is pretty important to us. So there is a lot of opportunities to save money by booking Basic Economy fares or saver fares. They tend to be the cheapest but they are really restricted for the most part. So if you’re traveling with a family and you want to be able to choose your seat if you know you’re gonna have a lot of bags because either you’re packing for several people or you’re bringing gifts along with you. There are restrictions around that and you may end up paying more in the end if you have to check bags because you’re gonna be paying for those. So just something to consider we usually avoid those fares because we know that we’re gonna need to sit with our kids. The other thing we try to avoid is multi-leg trips if we can. If there’s a direct flight, even if it’s a little bit more expensive we usually opt for that because around Christmas time and around Thanksgiving, the reality is the weather is a factor. If you do have a stopover somewhere and it’s somewhere that’s likely to have a storm or something like that you could get delayed and there’s honestly nothing worse than slogging through the airport multiple times with all the gear. So those are two of the things that we consider for our travel needs.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Christie, you brought up an interesting point and that is presents and packages. I’m lucky enough that I’m just in a car so I can just put everything in the back seat or in the trunk. But you guys have to fly with them. What do you do?
Para Raman: One thing I learned by trial and error was I ended up packing all of the gifts that we were taking in a couple of checked bags and one of them apparently triggered a TSA check and they had to open all of the gift wrappings. So anyway the trial and error message was from this TSA guy who said, “please don’t gift wrap any of your gifts. It makes it a lot easier for you to get through the security lines.”
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Do you guys ever ship your presents ahead of time?
Christie Hudson: Well we have enough stuff in our suitcase with the four of us so we tend to ship all our presents in advance. We utilize free shipping, we utilize gift wrapping options if we can. All that stuff goes straight to the in-law’s house so we don’t really have to bother with it.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: And that’s a really good tip too because even if it’s not during the holidays, oftentimes my husband and I will ship diapers or any other sort of baby necessities or food or snacks ahead of time. The more stuff you have to put into a bag means more checked baggage and more checked baggage fees.
Christie Hudson: Agreed. Also just remember a lot of times wherever you’re going probably has a grocery store and you might be able to hit that up. My mother-in-law brought sweet potatoes in her suitcase one time. That was really confusing because Seattle definitely also sells sweet potatoes.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Para, is there any benefit to booking a package around the holidays?
Para Raman: Yeah definitely. What happens when you typically buy a package instead of buying a flight or a car or a hotel stand-alone is you end up saving a whole lot of money. What I’ve seen from my previous Europe trip is I’ve gotten some of the nights for free from booking as a package as opposed to buying them individually.
Christie Hudson: I just have to second that because I really feel like vacation packages are one of these misunderstood things. It sounds to people who haven’t booked them like something you have to just buy that’s already designed for you. It’s something you click and you’re like, “okay I guess I’ll go with these flights and this hotel” but you can actually still get whatever flights you want. You can still get whatever hotel you want just by booking them at the same time. It’s kind of like insurance where if you do multiple people on your policy or if you combine your car insurance and your home insurance you get a better rate. We just booked a trip to Hawaii for the second week of January because like we said that’s a great time to travel and the savings on the hotel were $500.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Wow, it’s like a real thing.
Christie Hudson: I really encourage people to check it out and even if it’s not something you book it’s something to play around with when you’re trying to plan your travel to see if it will get you any savings.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Do you guys have any special places that you want to go for the holidays? Christie you’re going to Hawaii this year but do you have any other bucket list travel plans for the holidays?
Christie Hudson: Yeah I mean one of my goals would be to skip the holidays at home and try and get everybody to go to a beach destination just one out of every five years, that would be nice. I love being home for the holidays with the Christmas tree and everything like I’m big on those traditions too, but it also would be really lovely to take a break from one of the boring residential places that we usually spend the holidays and head to Hawaii all together or let’s even be ambitious and maybe go to the Maldives!
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: I love it, it’s like instead of a destination wedding it’s a destination Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Christie Hudson: Exactly. I think we’re on something.
Para Raman: I totally support that. I want to do a pre-Christmas and celebrate that time with the family and then the actual Christmas time, go somewhere else. I prefer being in remote places and mountains. We did a recent trip to Alaska and we drove past the Arctic Circle and saw the Northern Lights. It was a brilliant experience. It was just my wife, me, and a couple of our friends. We were in a town that had only 15 people. It was the furthest down that people live in Alaska. There was just absolutely no one around us and there was something about solitude and looking at the night sky and the stars that gives you peace.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Wow I can only imagine what that would feel like, that would be the antithesis to a busy crowded airport and holiday season madness. It’s like just being in total peace and quiet. Para, what’s your favorite part about traveling during the holidays?
Para Raman: As I’ve traveled more I’ve realized that it brings people closer. You get a better understanding of other people’s other cultures. What better time to do that other than the holiday season, both Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s about spending time with the family and having a good meal, it’s the best time for me.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Christie what about you?
Christie Hudson: I totally agree with Para, I think being with family is really special and we’re really lucky to be able to do that.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Well thank you to both so much for sharing your holiday hacks and thank you for listening to Out Travel The System brought to you by Expedia. We’d love to hear your travel tips, questions and stories so find us on your favorite social media channel just search for @Expedia. If you want a deeper dive into the best time to book and more general travel tips be sure to listen to episode 2 of Out Travel The System. If you haven’t already, subscribe to this podcast there’s no need to wait until the holidays! Don’t miss another episode as we share more tips to help you out-travel the system, I’m your guest host Jordi Lippe-McGraw. Happy travels!