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Planning a trip between November and New Year’s can conjure up all sorts of challenges.
Challenges like finding an affordable flight.
“During the holiday season, there are no good deals—only ‘bad’ or ‘better’ ones,” says Rick Seaney, CEO of airfare search engine FareCompare.
As Seaney explains it, airlines fully expect you to wait until the last minute to book—and charge you for it.
Still, whether you’re simply heading home or planning to globetrot during the holiday season, there are ways to pull off a getaway—without busting your budget or spending too many hours going down a black hole of Internet searches.
The trick is knowing which travel apps and websites can do the number crunching and creative quick thinking for you—like where to score a hotel deal tonight.
So consider following these tips for streamlining your late-in-the-game trip planning.
Then get packing—you’ve got a plane to catch.
3 Tips for Booking Last-Minute Flights
1. Time—and route—it right. It should come as no surprise that flying the day before Christmas or during the first few days of January comes at a premium.
But contrary to what you may think, it’s actually fairly cheap to fly on a holiday, like Thanksgiving.
Beyond that, it can be hard to deduce which days offer up the best airfare deals, which is where Hopper comes in.
The data-analyzing app will alert you when fares for your desired route have hit their predicted low point.
And if you are traveling close to the holidays, there are ways to reduce your risk of delays.
The general rule is to book early morning flights, and if you can’t avoid a layover, opt for warm-weather hubs, like Phoenix or Dallas.
2. Let the deals be your guide. If you don’t have your heart set on a specific destination for a last-minute getaway, there are a bunch of sites that can help you book an affordable trip.
Sites like the new Fareness and Kayak’s Explore tool, both of which enable you to simply punch in your home airport and general travel dates to see which destinations offer the best bang for your travel buck.
Kayak also has a Holiday Travel Hacker feature that zeros in on locales that have seen the biggest drop in fares compared to the previous holiday season. Always wanted to ring in the New Year in Rio? It’s 26% cheaper to fly there this year.
If you’re doing a really last-minute search, check out Hopper’s GTFO app (Get the Flight Out), which can quickly identify the cheapest flights to your destination.
3. Make the most of your miles. When airfares spike, frequent flier miles can become a better value—and the minimums may be lower than you think.
“American Airlines, for example, offers last-seat availability on many domestic flights at 20,000 miles each way, even during the holiday season,” says Jared Blank, CMO of Dealnews. “This can be a great way to get value for miles you’ve accumulated.”
If you’re just shy of an award ticket, new site Pex+ lets you swap points with other users. Or you could consider just booking one leg of your trip with miles.
“I did this while booking a last-minute trip to San Francisco and saved over $100,” says savings expert Kendal Perez of Coupon Sherpa.
And website UsingMiles can crunch the numbers to tell you when you’re better off paying with dollars by combing reward travel sites based on your miles. It can even send you alerts when any of your miles are about to expire.
3 Tips for Booking Last-Minute Hotel Stays
1. Use apps to your advantage. It’s never been easier to score a room at short notice—and at a bargain.
Pioneering app HotelTonight helps out truly last-minute guests by offering heavily discounted rates on properties after 3 P.M. on check-in day.
Roomer fills another market need by selling off the prepaid reservations of travelers who had to cancel and want to recoup some of their losses.
A sample Roomer search for Thanksgiving weekend turned up a $229 room at California’s Omni La Costa, whereas the hotel website listed a $299 rate.
2. Opt for a business-friendly hotel. Since the conference scene slows down during the holidays, many big chain hotels are willing to cut a deal.
The Starwood Preferred Guest website, for instance, offers 11th-hour bookings at Sheratons, Ws and other brands within its fold. For instance, a search for a room at Dallas’ Westin Galleria yielded $144 a night (or $75, plus 5,000 Starwood loyalty points)—compared to the regular room rate of $207.
To search across numerous chains, the new Booking Now app serves up more than half a million hotels worldwide at a discount by using GPS to highlight the most competitive rates close to your destination.
3. Bundle your stay with your airfare. As your travel dates draw near, packages that combine airfare with a hotel stay—and even a car rental—can sometimes be cheaper than booking airfare on its own.
And the savings often come from the hotel.
“Hotels typically have a higher margin, so they have more wiggle room to discount,” Seaney says. “And since these bundle deals are typically not transparent, the hotels aren’t breaking their low-fare guarantee rules.”
Big-name online travel agency sites (OTAs) are good places to find such package deals. A recent Hipmunk search, for instance, delivered a savings of nearly $300 when booking a flight to Chicago, with a stay at the Swissôtel near Millennium Park.
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