Ho ho ho. Yes, you can still make that special holiday trip, but you’d better do it right now. Here are my best tips:
▪ Book immediately. Sometimes we all get busy or just procrastinate, but those flights are only going to get more expensive. Next year, make yourself a note to start searching earlier. Download the Hopper app to your smartphone and use it to search months ahead.
▪ Fly on the holiday itself. You can usually save 30 percent or more off the inflated prices, especially if it’s a red-eye. Of course, no one wants to miss Christmas dinner, so this may not be an option for you. But it’s worth checking out.
▪ Fly the next day. Since most people will stay the entire weekend, traffic will be slower on the Saturday after Christmas and New Year’s Day.
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A few years ago, we flew to Thailand the day after Christmas, and spent the New Year’s holiday there. Airfares were inflated before Christmas and on Jan. 1, but on other dates, we found it quite affordable. Also, since we stayed in Bangkok and didn’t arrive at the beach resort we’d reserved until Jan. 1, we also got a bargain there. All the holiday vacationers were heading home, and the high-season rates were dropping way down.
▪ See if you can use airline miles. I know, usually frequent flier seats would long since have been taken, but sometimes the airlines will release additional seats at the last minute. It will only take a few minutes to search, so why not?
▪ Do your homework. Try numerous websites before you book. Explore around and check out your options. Sites I always search: Kayak.com, ITASoftware.com, Orbitz.com and individual airlines I like, including JetBlue and Southwest. Don’t forget to check the box to search nearby airports.
▪ Clear your cookies. If you discover that the airfares online seem to have gone up while you were searching, and you’re being asked to pay more for the exact same flight, you’ve got cookies. Booking sites install cookies to track your movements on their site. Now, they want to charge you more.
What can you do about that? Go up to your browser options, and tell it you want to “clear your recent history.” That should remove the cookies. I did this not long ago, after a tip from a reader, and the airfare price immediately dropped $20 per ticket, back to its original price.
▪ Take a look at Skip-lagged. This website not only searches your departure and destination airports, but also searches for other flights that might make a stop at your destination on the way to somewhere else.
For example, let’s say you want to go to Dallas from Miami. You of course can search for flights to and from those locations. But Skiplagged.com will also search flights that merely have a plane change in Dallas, and sometimes they’ll be cheaper. What if you bought that ticket to, say Los Angeles, but then didn’t get on the second plane? This is against airline rules, by the way, so if that bothers you, stop reading.
Note that you couldn’t check a bag with this option, because it wouldn’t get off the plane with you in Dallas. Also, there’s a slight possibility the plane wouldn’t stop in Dallas for some reason — weather, for example. Take a look, read all the warnings, and see if this is something to try.
▪ Bid on Priceline. You can save serious coin if you’re willing to take any flight to get to your destination, regardless of airline or time. Try to leave yourself a few days before you fly to bid, if possible. That enables you to get the cheapest flight.
If you use the “name your own price” function on Priceline.com, the company will guarantee that your flight will leave between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. on the day you select. It will also be either nonstop or have one connection.
Here’s the key: You must check another source like Orbitz.com or Kayak.com to see what the lowest fare is that you could otherwise buy without bidding. Don’t merely trust what Priceline has to say.
Then, choose one departure airport and one arrival airport, even if there are multiple airports from which to choose. I’ll explain why.
Make a bid. If you’re not flying tomorrow, make that bid lower than your comfort level. Yes, really. Do it. The whole point of bidding is to get a steal. Think of it as electronic haggling. Offer half price and see what happens.
But be aware that once you bid, there’s no changing your mind. You’ve put your credit card number in and, if they accept your bid, you’ll be charged. No refunds.
Got rejected? That’s fine. Watch your email, because you might get an immediate counteroffer. If you don’t, and you want to rebid immediately, just add an additional airport. For example, say that you’ll fly out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale both. Now, the system will let you rebid immediately. Otherwise, you have to wait 24 hours to rebid. But as long as you’re changing your bid, you can rebid immediately.
Now, keep in mind that Priceline won’t let you make any changes, and my research tells me the customer service is atrocious. So make sure you bid low enough to compensate for that, and, if you have enough time before your trip, you might also want to buy “cancel for any reason” insurance from a company listed at InsureMyTrip.com, so you could get most of your money back if necessary.
▪ Take the bus. No, it’s not crazy talk. For example, South Florida has at least three bus lines that go to Orlando and other Florida destinations, Red Coach (www.redcoachusa.com), Megabus (http://us.megabus.com/) and Smart Shuttle Line (www.smartshuttleline.com). Most have bathrooms and Wi-Fi. And of course there’s Greyhound (www.greyhound.com), which in recent years has upgraded service and added express buses. It’s slower than flying, but the thought of the airport at the holidays makes me shudder.
▪ Consider the train. Amtrak is certainly not the fastest way to get anywhere, but it might be the most enjoyable, if you can use the time to relax and enjoy the scenery. The Silver Star and Silver Meteor run between Miami and New York. The 27-hour journey to New York starts at $147 one-way; Charleston, South Carolina (13 hours) is $83 one way, and Orlando (5 to 7 1/2 hours) is $44. That’s in a regular reserved seat; sleepers cost more.
Note that on Amtrak, seniors 62 and older save 15 percent, kids 12 and under save 50 percent, and there’s also 10 percent off for AAA club members. Learn more: www.amtrak.com.