Avoid peak travel dates.
At Thanksgiving, Wednesday is the critical outbound "avoid" day as a rule. Traveling on Thanksgiving day proper is often a breeze and more affordable; there are often cut-rate airfare deals on Thanksgiving day.
On the return, Friday morning isn't bad at all, with each successive day getting a little busier, more difficult and more expensive through Sunday evening. The bottom line: If you are looking for a deal, you won't find one on the peak travel days. Travel off-peak whenever possible.
Christmas and New Year's Day fall on Tuesdays this year, so the weekend of December 22 - 23 as well as the day after each holiday could be quite busy. For more insight on this year's peak travel days, see What Not to Do When Traveling Over the Holidays.
Haven't booked your holiday travel yet? It's time to stop waiting and start booking. Fares are only rising as Thanksgiving approaches, so those who hold out in hopes of a late-breaking sale are likely to get left out in the cold or pay a very steep price for their procrastination. The same goes for the Christmas holiday; book sooner rather than later, particularly if you require very specific travel dates or times. With the current state of the airline industry, it is never too early to book your holiday travel flights. Be prepared to be flexible with dates and flight times.
Holiday Travel Ideas and Advice
Whether you're using booking sites like Travelocity, bid or auction sites such as Priceline, aggregator sites, or our very own travel deals, comparison shopping has never been easier than it is right now. During peak travel season, casting the net as wide as possible will help you understand all of your options.
For many travelers, price isn't the only or even the most important factor, especially during the holidays. Thoughtful, deliberate use of the "search adjacent days or airports" features found on many Web sites may also surrender greatly improved fares and travel times.
For more help, see our Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare. Having trouble finding a hotel? Don't miss No Vacancy? No Problem.
Know your airports.
Checking alternate airports is a pretty standard tactic, but at this time of year it can really make a difference. At no time can the alternate airport gambit pay off better than during the holiday crush. You can score on almost every front -- parking, rental cars, traffic to and from, nearby hotels -- and save both time and money.
For example, a recent flight to Hanscom airport outside Boston dropped me right into Thoreau and Minuteman country near the peak foliage season, offering a very different experience than flying into Logan. Upon my return, the car rental agent informed me that my flight might be running late and let me hold onto the car keys until we were sure that the flight would take off, with no additional fee. Only at a small airport can you get that kind of treatment.
Also, keep in mind that smaller airports see fewer flights and, typically, fewer delays -- not a minor consideration during the busy holiday travel season.
Choosing an Airport: 10 Reasons to Look Beyond Price
Plot connections carefully.
When booking flights, check your search results carefully for sufficient time during layovers, and build in some time for flight delays and weather woes. Particularly during the winter months, peak travel times often bring peak travel delays, and your connection is more likely to be jeopardized. Avoiding really tight connections may save you a sprint through the terminal or a missed flight. Also, it is best if you can muscle your flight path into position so that connections are in places less likely to experience delays -- specifically, airports in warmer climates. For more advice, see our Winter Travel Tips.
During peak travel times, much of the trouble you'll face lies on this side of the security check-in, from traffic jams and full parking lots to absent shuttles and long lines. Rather than striving to "arrive at the airport early," you may want to try to "leave for the airport early" to anticipate all the peripheral delays you may encounter.
16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster
In the past, you may have been able to fit everything into your carry-on without having to check any baggage -- a strategy we still recommend. However, the TSA rules about liquids and gels make this a trickier proposition. For the record, you may bring liquids and gels in 3.4-ounce or smaller containers, packed within a single, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag. You're also allowed to bring any liquids (such as coffee or water) or gels purchased after you go through a security checkpoint onto your plane with you. If you want to bring more than the 3.4-ounce amount, you'll have to pack the items in your checked luggage.
For more information, read our Airport Security Q&A.
When packing, keep in mind that most airlines are now charging travelers a fee for checking any bags on domestic flights (and even some international ones). Read more about the surcharges in Airline Baggage Fees, and trim your luggage load with The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time.