Ah the holidays! It can be the best of times or the worst of times for travelers. Best because it’s a time for us to kick back, relax and enjoy some time off work with our loved ones. Worst because of all the hassles and high prices involved in getting there.
A word of warning: Holiday travel could be crazier this year than in previous years. Why? High demand and timing. And weather is always the wild card.
Demand is up
Advance bookings at Best Western’s 2,000+ hotels in the US from November 15-January 15 are up 6.1% compared to this time last year. The number of nights booked is up 10.5%, which means those who are traveling are planning to stay longer. In Canada, advance bookings and the number of nights booked are both up 13%. AAA expects 48.7 million Americans will travel over Thanksgiving- that’s a million more travelers than last year, and the busiest Thanksgiving since the great recession of 2007. The trade group Airlines for America expects Thanksgiving air travel to be up 2.5% over last year, which means 55,000 more travelers on planes and at airports every day across the country.
Calendar is the problem
The outlook for Christmas is going to be dicey. That’s because we are faced with Christmas and New Year’s Day both falling on Sundays this year. This means that the holiday season will be more densely packed with travelers on or around both of those weekends. (When Christmas and New Year’s fall mid-week, the season is more spread out.)
Busiest days at Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving will be the pretty standard this year, with busiest days on the Wednesday before the feast and the Sunday and Monday after. But you should also be aware of big crowds and delays on the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving, too. That’s because more people are taking the whole week off. My advice: Make your trip short and sweet: Depart early Thanksgiving morning (the slowest day) and get home in time for the feast. Then fly or drive back on Friday or Saturday before the Sunday rush.
Craziest days at Christmas/New Year’s
For Christmas and New Year’s, expect the busiest days at airports and freeways to be the Thursday and Friday (Dec 22-23) before Christmas. Since New Year’s Day is on Sunday, you’ll see heavy traffic that afternoon as well as on the Monday and Tuesday after New Year’s (Jan 2-3).
While most major media focus on air travel during the holidays, the reality is that nearly 90% of holiday travel is by car. And since most of Best Western guests arrive by car that 6.1% increase in demand is a good indicator of how busy roads will be this year. In addition, record low gas prices and fear of airline hassles will be pushing a lot more Americans into their cars for holiday trips.
One key reason for high demand for travel during in the months ahead is the declining price of gasoline. Currently, the average price per gallon nationally is about $2.15—down from a high of about $2.35 in June. Those driving in the Midwest will find the least expensive gas this year ($1.70/gal)- those driving in the West will pay the most (>$2.50/gal). Airlines are enjoying the dip in fuel prices, too, which means that holiday airfares, while always high, will not increase much this year compared to last year. Some fares might even decline slightly.
Would you consider spending the holidays in Europe? If you’ve been waiting around for a deal, this might be the year to go. Transatlantic airfares are at new lows due to increased competition and low fuel prices. Plus, major currencies have tumbled in relation to the dollar. As I write this, 1 euro is worth about US$1.07 and is approaching parity. The British pound is at about $1.24.
Holiday Travel Q&A
During the holidays, I’m frequently on TV and radio doling out travel advice. Here are my answers to some of the most frequently asked questions:
When’s the best time to buy airline tickets for Christmas? Due to high demand, there simply are not any real airfare “deals” on the peak days around Christmas and New Year’s this year. Travelers who want the most convenient flights on their preferred airlines should book as soon as possible to get seats on those flights – otherwise they will likely be stuck paying the same high price for less desirable flights that depart super early or late, they’ll have to sit in those dreaded middle seats, or make several stops en route to their destinations.
Should I drive or fly this year? I always stick to the five hour rule: If you can drive to your destination in five hours or less, it’s likely smarter to hit the road instead of the skies during the holidays. This is especially true for families traveling together. If you haven’t done so yet, download the Waze app, a GPS-based mapping tool that uses information provided by other drivers to help you avoid traffic, road hazards – and speed traps!
What’s a good way to avoid holiday travel stress? Always try to book nonstop flights, because you double your chances of a delay or cancellation with a one-stop flight, even though you might save a few bucks. Another stress-busting move: Consider staying over in a hotel when visiting families during the holidays. Rates at new hotels like a locally owned Best Western in or near suburban office parks hit annual lows during holidays (due to the lack of business travelers), and facilities are usually new and nice. Having your own space at a hotel is a big relief for both the traveler and the host during the stressful holidays.
Are there any alternatives or hidden secrets to getting good deals this year? If you have the flexibility to travel during the slowest times of year, the so-called “dead weeks” of early December and early January, you can save 50-70 percent on airfare or hotels. Some ski resorts will discount lift tickets during dead weeks. It’s also a good idea to check out airline or hotel social media streams on sites like Twitter or Facebook to look for short term, last minute sales.
Is now a good time to redeem points or miles for trips? It’s nearly impossible to use airline frequent flyer awards during the blacked out, heavily restricted peak holiday season. On the other hand, demand for hotels declines during holidays, which means that it’s a lot easier to redeem those hard-earned loyalty points—or find good last minute deals.
What about airline baggage fees? If possible, avoid checking bags during the holidays; the risk of your bag getting lost and ruining your trip is just too high. Try to learn to live out of a carry-on. If you have too much for a carry on, ship your bags ahead of time, but do so at the “ground” rate at UPS, FedEx or the Postal Service. Shipping a 25 lb. bag via next-day or two-day express is just too expensive.