Smart Money Podcast: If You’re Traveling for the Holidays, Start Planning Now

Elina Geller
Sally French
Rosalie Murphy
Sean Pyles
By Sean Pyles,  Rosalie Murphy,  Sally French and  Elina Geller 
Published
Edited by Kevin Berry

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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions. In this episode:

Learn why it’s a good time to check your credit card interest rates, and you should start planning your holiday travel now.

This Week in Your Money: NerdWallet’s Rosalie Murphy joins host Sean Pyles to discuss rising credit card interest rates and how they can impact debt repayment. They offer tips on adapting to these higher interest rates and how you may be able to negotiate a lower rate or payment plan with your credit card issuer if you're struggling to make repayments. They also talk about balance transfer credit cards that offer 0% APR intro periods and non-profit credit counseling organizations that could help you create a personalized debt payoff plan.

Today’s Money Question: Travel Nerds Elina Geller and Sally French join Sean to explain why now is a good time to start planning for this year’s holiday travel season. They discuss the best time to book flights, the least and most busy travel dates around Thanksgiving, and restrictions on basic economy seats that could prevent you from reaching your destination if anything goes wrong with your flight. They also dive into travel insurance, Apple AirTags, and deals that allow credit card holders to use points for airport perks beyond ticket costs. The Nerds also weigh the pros and cons of booking flights on short notice, and discuss what you may want to consider when deciding whether to drive instead of fly.

Check out this episode on your favorite podcast platform, including:

NerdWallet stories related to this episode:

Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at [email protected]. To hear previous episodes, go to the podcast homepage.

Episode transcript

Sean Pyles: I know, I know, it's not even Halloween, but if you're planning to travel for the holidays this year, you should start making your plans now. And in this episode, we've got the tips for holiday travel.

Welcome to NerdWallet's Smart Money Podcast where you send us your money questions and we answer them with the help of our genius Nerds. I'm Sean Pyles.

Rosalie Murphy: And I'm Rosalie Murphy. I'm usually behind the scenes helping produce Smart Money, but today I am joining Sean in the conversation.

Sean Pyles: Speaking of money questions, we know everyone's got one, whatever yours is, send it to us. You can email us at [email protected] or text the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373.

Rosalie Murphy: And we'd love to hear your voices. So you can also send a voice memo to [email protected] or leave a voicemail on the Nerd hotline. Again, that's 901-730-NERD.

Sean Pyles: In this episode, we'll have our annual holiday travel round table with some of our favorite travel Nerds. But first, let's talk interest rates, specifically credit card interest rates.

Rosalie Murphy: Yeah, that's the plan. So rising interest rates have been the economic story of the last year and a half or so. If you've gotten a mortgage or a car loan recently, you probably know that you've been hit by higher interest rates.

Sean Pyles: But you'd be forgiven if the rising interest rates on your credit cards slipped under the radar.

Rosalie Murphy: That's right. Those of us who pay off our credit cards every month.

Sean Pyles: Or like me every week or more.

Rosalie Murphy: Right. Folks who pay off their credit card balances and don't pay interest on what they charge may not have noticed that their credit card interest rates have been steadily ticking up with each rate increase from the Federal Reserve.

Sean Pyles: And considering that Americans hit $1 trillion in credit card debt in August, and the average credit card interest rate recently hit a record high, folks should know what's happening with their interest rates, whether they're paying interest or not.

Rosalie Murphy: Definitely. I didn't even know what the APRs on a couple of my credit cards were before I was prepping for this episode, so I tracked them down.

Sean Pyles: Oh yeah? What did you find, Rosalie?

Rosalie Murphy: So I looked at two credit cards in particular. Card number one has an APR of a little more than 25% right now. When I opened it about two years ago, the APR was around 20%. And card number two has an APR of around 16%, but that's up from around 13% when that card first started charging interest, which was back in 2019. For the record, if you want to find your credit card's APR, you can pull up your monthly statement online. That's where I found mine.

Sean Pyles: So for context, everyone's credit card interest rates can be different. They vary based on what card you have, your credit history and other factors, but we know that the average interest rates on credit cards were around 22% in May. That's up from around 16% a year and a half ago when the Fed started raising interest rates.

Rosalie Murphy: And while 6% might not sound like a big increase, it can make your debt a lot more expensive. Our colleague, Liz Renter, recently did some math on how interest rate hikes might affect your ability to pay down credit card debt. Let's say you're paying off $10,000 over three years. That rate hike from 16% to 22% means more than a thousand dollars in additional interest.

Sean Pyles: And that's a lot of extra money. High interest rates are one of the main reasons that credit card debt can become toxic debt, meaning that it's very difficult to pay off and can erode your financial health, like your ability to save for emergencies or other financial goals.

Rosalie Murphy: So Sean, among us, you are the debt payoff pro. What can listeners do to adapt credit card use to these higher interest rates?

Sean Pyles: First, if you are carrying a balance on your credit card, it's a smart idea to know the interest rate that you're paying on this debt. Do what Rosalie described earlier and log into your accounts and find your credit card's APR. As someone who's had credit card debt in the past, I'm not one to judge here, but seeing how expensive this debt is can be good motivation to find ways to pay off that debt faster and hopefully cheaper. And if you don't carry a balance, simply knowing your interest rate can be good motivation to keep up that habit.

Rosalie Murphy: Yeah, like we've mentioned, the best way to make credit card interest easier to manage is by not paying any at all, and that typically means paying off your balance in full every month. But if that's not possible, it's a good idea to make a plan to resolve what you owe quickly so you pay as little as possible in interest. That might mean you stop using credit cards for a period of time. That'll keep your balance from growing beyond the interest that's accruing. Once you know your balance, crunch some numbers to see how much you'd have to pay each month to wipe out that debt and how long it would take. For me, if I have a charge that I know I won't be able to pay off in a month, I'm definitely going to make sure to use the card with the lowest interest rate to keep that debt as inexpensive as I can.

Sean Pyles: And beyond that, if you are struggling to afford your credit card payments, you can contact your credit card issuer and try to negotiate a lower interest rate or maybe a payment plan. There are also balance transfer credit cards that offer zero APR intro periods. You'll pay a fee to move your credit card balance to that new card, but then you won't owe interest on that debt for a set period of time. But note that you'll typically need good to excellent credit to qualify for these cards though.

Rosalie Murphy: And there are also nonprofit credit counseling organizations that can help you figure out a personalized debt payoff plan.

Sean Pyles: That is always good advice. Well, that's all for this episode This Week in Your Money Segment. Rosalie, thank you for joining me.

Rosalie Murphy: Thank you, Sean. It was great to be here.

Sean Pyles: Before I move on, listener, I have an exciting announcement. We are running another book, giveaway sweepstakes ahead of our next nerdy book club episode. Next month we're speaking with Farnoosh Torabi, author of the book A Healthy State of Panic, which is about learning to use your fear as a superpower and to make better decisions when it comes to your finance, career and life. To enter for a chance to win our book giveaway, send an email to [email protected] with the subject Book Sweepstakes during the sweepstakes period. Entries must be received by 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time on November 29th. Include the following information: your first and last name, email address, ZIP code and phone number. For more information, please visit our official sweepstakes rules page. Now let's move on to my conversation with two travel Nerds about holiday travel this year. Stay with us.

This episode, I'm talking about what you need to know about holiday travel in 2023 with travel Nerds Elina Geller and Sally French. We're looking at whether airlines are going to be prepared for the surge of holiday passengers and what travelers can do to save money and give themselves some peace of mind. Sally, Elina, welcome to Smart Money.

Sally French: Hello and happy holidays. I can't believe it's already here.

Sean Pyles: I know.

Elina Geller: Hi. Thank you for having me.

Sean Pyles: So let's talk about how busy holiday travel is going to be this year. Sally, what do you think?

Sally French: Travel this holiday season is going to be busy. We've already seen record numbers of passengers for past holidays. For example, on June 30th, which was the Friday before July Fourth, we saw a new record high of passengers, period. That topped the previous record, which happened the Sunday after 2019 at Thanksgiving. And across the board, not just on those specific days, the TSA is seeing more people at the airports this year per month than in 2019 before the pandemic.

Sean Pyles: Elina, what do you think hotels will be like during the holiday season this year?

Elina Geller: I would say the same is true for hotels. Last year, hotels set some records for occupancy during the week between Christmas and New Year's. At the same time, hotels were charging their highest average daily rate ever. So people were willing to pay to travel during the holidays, and I think they will do so again this year.

Sean Pyles: And Elina, you travel a lot internationally. How do you think things will be for those hoping to go abroad?

Elina Geller: I think international travel is also in a very different place this year than it was last year. A lot of the COVID requirements are gone. We saw them going away already last year, but this year it doesn't seem like there's any requirements at all. Asia's back open, which definitely wasn't the case for the holidays last year, and I think a lot of people will be trying to take advantage of the holidays to fly further. Also, I think people just want to travel after all these years of being under the pandemic. So I think travel's really going to be a lot higher this year than before.

Sean Pyles: Okay. So what I'm hearing is that airlines are going to be busy, hotels are going to be expensive, and everyone wants to get out. So it seems like holiday travel will be its typical sort of chaotic as usual. And hearing about all of this does make me a little bit nervous. I'm thinking back to last holiday season and what we saw with Southwest. How are things looking this year in terms of reliability and what travelers can do to give themselves some peace of mind? Sally, I'll start with you.

Sally French: Sean, I have to say I got caught up in that Southwest meltdown last year and it was not pretty. So the good news is that Southwest has vowed to make improvements. They've said that they would do things like upgrade their technology, buy more equipment like de-icing machines to deal with the winter weather. They're hiring more people, but the reality is that's just one airline. And it happened to Southwest, that's not to say it can't happen to other airlines. In fact, Sean, I got caught up in the United Airlines meltdown, which happened around the 4th of July weekend.

Sean Pyles: Oh no.

Sally French: Yes. I don't know if I have bad luck or I just travel often. Maybe both. But the reality is I don't think any airline is immune. So you want to make sure that you have a plan. Even the best, most reliable airline is not immune to something like winter weather, and that can just, pardon my pun, that can snowball into worse airline problems.

Sean Pyles: Okay. Well, do you have any tips for folks hoping to avoid the worst of the chaos?

Sally French: Yeah, so my best tip across the board is no matter what airline you're flying, fly out early in the day. Flights that are later in the day are more likely to get canceled or delayed because of that snowball effect. The first flight is delayed, and then that just means that the later ones are also going to be delayed. So if you can get that first flight out, you just reduce the risk of that happening. And the reality is, if you can book the first flight out, I know it's brutal to wake up at 4:00 a.m. on your vacation, but then you'll just get to your destination. You'll be there in time for Thanksgiving dinner and you won't have to worry about it.

The other thing that you can do is that you can look at which airlines are in general more reliable. As I said, no one can control the weather. That said, NerdWallet looked at airline departure data. Delta actually has the highest on-time departure rate, which is 83%. Among the ones that are the least reliable, those are some of the budget airlines, like Frontier has a very low reliability rate, and actually so does Jet Blue.

Another thing that you should consider is whether or not you want to book basic economy seats. These are the airfares that are no frills. They give you basically just the seat and not a lot of extras. And the good news is that they can be a lot cheaper. So if you're really on a budget and you don't need all those extras, I often do recommend that people consider basic economy, but holiday times is one of those times that maybe basic economy is not my favorite. The problem with basic economy is if something goes wrong and you need to change your flight, often they don't allow you to change or cancel your flight. Typically, standard economy fares are much more flexible, especially since the pandemic.

Sean Pyles: Okay. So Elina, what do you think people can do to protect themselves if they do have travel plans and maybe they see a storm on the horizon?

Elina Geller: I recommend getting travel insurance because it could help you when something goes awry. For example, let's say you have a travel insurance policy through your credit card, you may not even need to purchase a standalone policy, and it could help you, especially if you booked your travel with the credit card. But a standalone policy can also be really good, especially if it includes higher limits or better benefits than what you have on your card. Or it could be helpful if, let's say you don't have travel insurance on your card.

And I just want to piggyback off of what Sally said. I was also caught up in the United meltdown this summer. Basically, my luggage was supposed to be on a flight, but then that flight was delayed and I was put on a different flight, but my luggage never made it. So my luggage ended up getting stranded at Newark Airport for a week. And because I had my AirTag in my luggage, I could see exactly where it was and I kept on calling and following up so many times. But if let's say I didn't have my AirTag and my luggage would've been delayed for a week, I probably would've thought that my luggage was lost because it's such a crazy amount of time to wait to get your bags.

Sean Pyles: Yes, it gives you so much more peace of mind having an air tag in your suitcase. Just to remind our listeners, AirTag are little Bluetooth tracking devices that Apple makes. I slip one in my suitcase as well because I'm worried about losing my suitcase and I'm worried about an airline losing my suitcase. So those are some great tips. Book an early flight, avoid basic economy if your budget allows for it, get travel insurance and possibly some AirTags or other Bluetooth tracking devices. So Sally, Elina, I'd love to hear some tips about how to save money when booking holiday travel this year. Elina, what do you think?

Elina Geller: I think the sooner you book, the better. Google Flight data is showing that the prime window for booking a flight is 71 days before departure, and that puts it right around mid-October for flights around late December. So it would be a good time to start planning your flights now.

Sean Pyles: Oh, that's good to know because I'm always wondering what is the optimal time before a flight to book it? I've been teetering closer to 45 days, but do you think that you need a greater window of time for holidays in particular?

Elina Geller: I think it really depends. Of course, if you're paying in cash, the sooner you book flights that are popular for everyone, especially at a popular travel time, the better chance you're going to get a lower price and also the flight time that you want. If you're booking with miles, it's a little bit more of a gray area because some airlines release award availability to partners at the last minute. So you may be able to get a deal, but then again, you're kind of rolling the dice. So I would say for holiday travel, the sooner the better.

Sean Pyles: Sally, what do you think?

Sally French: Yeah, so I actually recommend being flexible on the days that you travel and seek out those less busy travel days. So NerdWallet actually analyzed the past four years of TSA checkpoint data to find out the most crowded days to fly. And on average, the most busy days to fly were, number one, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. As I mentioned, that was the single busiest day of all of 2019 and then also the Wednesday before. So that seems like it sort of checks out. Everyone flies out the day before Thanksgiving, they stay the long weekend and then they fly home the Sunday after. So if you can avoid those days, you'll avoid crowds. You'll probably also snag lower price deals and just the benefit of time is money. You don't necessarily need to get to the airport as early as you would on that super busy travel day. You might be able to get into a lounge without the crowds.

So I do want to tell you, Sean, some of the best days to fly, if you want to avoid the crowds are, for Thanksgiving specifically, fly out either the Saturday before and have just a super long week. Do this if you can work remotely from home or fly out the Monday before Thanksgiving because so many people are flying out the Tuesday or Wednesday. And then as far as post holiday, if you can extend your trip and fly out the Wednesday after, that would be amazing. That's the least busy day to fly of the two-week period. Or if you can fly out on Black Friday, there are very few travelers on that day. And of course, the single least busy day to fly of the two-week period around Thanksgiving is Thanksgiving Day itself. So going back to my tip, take the first flight out in the morning. You'll get there on time more than likely, and then you'll still have time to have Thanksgiving dinner with your family.

Sean Pyles: Yeah, hopefully you can get there and the turkey will still be warm for you. I do love that tip about flying early if you can, and working remotely if you're able to do so. That's what I'm considering doing for this Thanksgiving. Maybe flying out on the Monday before and then flying back on Friday or Saturday because I am not about dealing with crowds, but I do want to see my family, and that seems like a fair balance of both of those things.

Sally French: Absolutely. I'm also not about those crowds, and of course it's worth noting that these numbers are averages for the whole nation, but of course things can vary based on your destination. So look at actual prices for your specific airport. And there are a lot of tools, like Google Flights has a calendar view where you can enter your airport. And if you can be flexible and you can stay longer and stay with your family longer, Google Flights makes it really easy to see that maybe if you extend your trip by one day, airfares are a hundred dollars cheaper. Now, multiply that by your whole family, and that's another really good way to save money.

Sean Pyles: Yeah. Okay. Elina, I know that you are a travel point pro. Can you talk about some tips for folks who want to use their points when they're traveling over the holidays this year?

Elina Geller: I would say this could be a good opportunity to check out point deals. For example, Flying Blue promos, which are Air France and KLM's monthly award tickets that are offered at reduced prices. And if you can get one of those tickets to a destination that you're traveling to, you can get between a 25% and a 50% discount on the number of points that you'll need to use for the flight. The thing is, you'll still have to pay taxes and fees, but that could be a fraction of what a flight would cost on one of the holidays.

The other thing to consider is if you're going to be flying during a holiday, let's say a peak time like Thanksgiving or around Christmas, let's say you want to fly on a Thursday or Friday, you'd be looking to book your award ticket out way in advance because like Sally mentioned, and as we all know, people want to fly at the end of the week, they want to take the least amount of days off from work. So those are going to be the most popular days to fly. However, if you're flexible on dates, you can wait longer. And if you're even really flexible, then you could potentially wait until the day before flying. I do that a lot actually. And in those instances, you can get a first class ticket, let's say on points, with a partner airline because the partner airline sometimes would release award availability at the very last minute. So if you're super flexible, if you work remotely, you have a lot of options to get good deals if you're using points.

Sean Pyles: Doesn't that make you nervous though, booking a flight the day before you're going to take it? What if it's not available?

Elina Geller: Yes, I know I'm crazy, but I actually don't mind it.

Sean Pyles: Okay, well, that is not how I would want to travel, but I'm also a planner, so I guess it's good to know how you like to travel, how you like to have things booked and then do things accordingly.

Well, Sally, Elina, some people might be looking at prices for flights and hotels this year and wondering if they should even go. So what are some things people should consider if they are concerned about the cost and the crowds? Sally, let's start with you.

Sally French: Well, let's start by considering how much do you actually like your family? But I think the real things to consider are what do those flight prices look like? And a lot of people ask me and they ask NerdWallet, should I drive versus fly? And often flying can be better, it's faster. It might even be cheaper, especially if you're a smaller group. But weigh all of those things and weigh those things that aren't quite obvious.

So if you drive, you get to avoid those airport lines like the crazy TSA PreCheck crowds. And especially if you're flying with family and little kids, you might not want to be going through TSA. Even with elderly adults, it can be difficult. So if you drive, you get to avoid that. But then of course you do have to account for traffic, especially if you're driving during prime time.

Other things that you want to consider is that flexibility. I, like you, Sean, think that it is bananas that Elina is okay booking a flight last minute. Elina. But when you're driving, you do have that flexibility of, do you want to go? Do you not want to go? And like I said, if you're sick of your in-laws, you can just drive home early. So things to basically consider to make that decision are the size of your group, what other costs you'll be paying for. So driving means tolls, gas, things like that. But flying also means those extras, like early boarding, checking bags. Do you have pets? How flexible can you be on your time, and weigh all of those things in making that decision?

Sean Pyles: Yeah, I'm a big fan of driving for a longer trip. If I'm going down to see my partner's family for Christmas, we'll be there for almost a week. It makes sense to drive down. We're going to bring the dog and we're just going to move in for a few days. But for Thanksgiving, it's a much shorter holiday. It doesn't make sense to do that drive from where we are down to California just for a couple days.

Sally French: Yeah, that's a smart calculation.

Sean Pyles: So Elina, what do you think about this? What would you say to people who are concerned about the cost and crowds and everything else that goes into holiday travel?

Elina Geller: So first off, I just want to address the part about me booking everything the day before. So I don't do this all the time, it's just that sometimes I do and it's because I know that I could get a really good deal if I wait. So I calculate how much do I actually need to fly on this specific day, or do I have flexibility by one or two days? Let's say I'm going somewhere and visiting a friend. Then it doesn't matter if I, let's say, arrive on a Wednesday or Thursday, so I might roll the dice a little bit. But let's say if I'm going on a trip with friends or family and there's other planning involved, then I will usually book much more in advance, I would say. But still no more than two weeks because I feel like that's just too much of a commitment for me. So yeah. So definitely not super last minute, but not way in advance. Nothing like 71 days in advance. That's not for me. That's too much.

Sean Pyles: That's totally cool.

Sally French: Elina, I like your dice rolling style. It's excellent.

Elina Geller: Thank you. Thank you. And just to answer your previous question, I would say that the best way to save money is always using miles or points to book your flights just because you're going to be using points and not cash. So the amount of cash that's leaving your bank account is going to be lower when you're using points. Obviously there's taxes and fees and other things, but you have to do a calculation to see what makes sense for you. Also, I think another thing to consider is do you have a credit card that offers benefits that can make the flying experience easier?

For example, if you have a card that offers lounge access, that provides an opportunity to save some money while you're waiting at the airport for your flight, you could relax in a quiet space, get some free food and drinks. If you have a credit card benefit that offers TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, that helps you expedite your time at the airport. If you have a credit card that offers hotel benefits, maybe you have a free night certificate. So it's just taking advantage of all of these opportunities that are available, let's say miles or points or credit card benefits that could really make your travel experience easier and cheaper.

And the other thing to mention is that the end of the year is an important time for people to qualify for elite status that's going to get you through the following year. So this could be a really good time to consider where you want to stay when you're traveling because that could also help you achieve the next level of elite status, especially if you're going to be staying at a hotel rather than an Airbnb or with family.

Sean Pyles: I like that.

Sally French: And Elina, that end of the year note sort of reminded me of the fact that a lot of people who have travel credit cards have benefits that expire often on December 31st. So I always use the holidays as a good little reminder to check and make sure that I book on those things that would otherwise expire. Things like free hotel night certificates.

Sean Pyles: That's a great tip. Okay, well, I would love to hear how each of you is approaching holiday travel this year. Are you flying? Are you driving? Are you staying at home? Elina, what are you doing this year?

Elina Geller: So I'm not sure yet what my plans are going to be for the holidays. I want to do some traveling with my mom, and actually she's low on points, so I'm trying to help her increase her points balance so we could book something really nice and fly in business class or first class and stay in a hotel on points. Since I book most of my travel with miles and points, I don't worry that much about booking far in advance, like I mentioned. So I have a lot of flexibility, but this is kind of the planning that's going into holiday travel this year, more like getting my mom up to speed with points.

Sean Pyles: Okay. That's very nice of you. So how far in advance would you say that you're going to have your plans, just out of curiosity?

Elina Geller: We're starting to talk now about traveling in November, December.

Sean Pyles: Okay. Because my family is trying to organize a trip to Mexico for Christmas, and I have a sibling who is taking the lead on organizing this, and I'll just say I'm a little skeptical that they're going to get their stuff in order in time. So I've given them a deadline of mid-October, and if they don't have it booked then, then it's not going to happen. Do you think I'm being unreasonable here or is that fair?

Elina Geller: No, I think that's fair. Especially, I mean, I don't know how big the group is that you're traveling with, but I think traveling with a big group of people always adds that extra layer of stress, so it's better to plan ahead.

Sean Pyles: Okay. Well, thank you. Sally, what about you? What are you doing this year?

Sally French: Well, I sort of feel like the ultimate hypocrite because I'm not even traveling for the holidays this year. I think it's justified because as I mentioned, I was caught up in the United and the Southwest meltdowns, I can't do it. So if people want to spend the holidays with me, I'm making them come to me. Otherwise, I will enjoy my holidays at home.

The good news is that I always do the holidays during non-holiday times. So I'm going to see my dad in January, which I think is much better than dealing with the December and November crowds.

Sean Pyles: Oh, that's great. Okay. Well, Sally, Elina, thank you so much for sharing your holiday travel tips with me.

Elina Geller: Thank you for having me.

Sally French: This was great.

Sean Pyles: And that's all we have for this episode. If you have a money question of your own, turn to the Nerds and call or text us your question at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected]. Visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more info on this episode. And remember to follow, rate and review us wherever you're getting this podcast.

This episode was produced by Rosalie Murphy and myself, with help from Tess Vigeland. Kevin Tidmarsh and Kaely Monaghan mixed our audio. And a big thank you to NerdWallet editors for all their help.

Here's our brief disclaimer. We are not financial or investment advisors. This Nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.