3 Tips to Keep Your Holiday Travel Costs (and Stress) in Check

A new NerdWallet study examined traveler spending plans this holiday season. Here are tips for planning your costs.
Andrew Marder
Sally French
By Sally French and  Andrew Marder 
Updated
Edited by Meghan Coyle

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Nerdy takeaways
  • Compare the cost and hassle of travel methods. The way you've always done it might not still be the best.

  • Look at ways to cut down on credit card spending or ways to pay your balance off faster in 2024.

  • The best time to look at cards with better rates and perks is before you start booking airfare and hotels.

MORE LIKE THISTravel

Holiday travel in 2023 is poised to set records. This year, crowds will likely be bigger than they were over the past couple of years, based largely on the fact that past 2023 holidays have already set air travel records.

In 2023, the TSA has already seen seven of the top 10 busiest travel days in TSA’s history. Among the biggest was 2023’s Fourth of July weekend set records for U.S. air travel, according to TSA checkpoint data. That topped the previous record, which was last set back on the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2019. Thanksgiving is almost always the busiest day of the year. It was the busiest in 2019, 2021 and 2022 (only failing to claim that title in 2020 because, well, you know why).

So with that, expect 2023's post-Thanksgiving Sunday to set a new record for airport crowds. In fact, the TSA expects to screen 2.9 million passengers on Sunday, Nov. 26.

But it's not just airports. According to AAA, most Thanksgiving travelers actually drive to their destinations (rather than fly). And more drivers will be out this year versus last, with AAA projecting that 49.1 million Americans get behind the wheel, up 1.7% compared to 2022.

For many Americans, that travel comes with a hefty price tag, often paid for with a credit card.

A new NerdWallet survey found that 50% of Americans plan to spend money on flights or hotels during the 2023 holiday season. Of those holiday travelers, about three quarters (75%) plan to put some or all of the bills on their credit cards.

If you plan to join the ranks of holiday travelers, here are some tips to get you through the season with as little financial stress as possible.

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1. Compare travel options

The way you've always traveled doesn't have to be the way you always travel. As creatures of habit, we often take the same familiar paths to get from point A to point B, even when other routes might be faster, cheaper or more efficient.

Whether it's to decrease costs or avoid headaches, rethinking your usual flying versus driving calculation can be a helpful first step toward low-stress holiday travel. And once you've made the decision, here are some tips:

If you're flying

Conversely, maybe flying makes more sense — particularly if you've got a long way to go, or you just don't have the time or patience to sit in a car. Luckily the rate of airline delays and cancellations is lower this yeear than it was last year, but the number is still not zero — which could be brutal if it affects you.

Before booking a flight in cash, look to your frequent flyer account to see if you can use points or miles to book flights. In fact, 30% of overall travelers say they plan to use points/miles to pay for travel expenses according to NerdWallet's 2023 Holiday Travel Report, and an even-higher 40% of millennial travelers say they will.

If you're driving

Our survey found that 12% of holiday travelers are planning to drive rather than fly. That might not be a bad idea, given how much lower gas prices are this year versus last year, when the national average on Thanksgiving was $3.58. Still, that doesn't mean gas is cheap. There's no shortage of gas apps to help you find lower prices. Other money-saving gas tricks include driving more wisely (yes, high speeds can reduce fuel efficiency) and avoid idling – which means planning your drive times outside of peak traffic hours.

If you're driving a car that's not yours, you don't necessarily need to use a traditional rental car. These days, more rental car alternatives including Turo, Getaround and Kyte offer unique conveniences and sometimes even lower prices than standard rental cars.

If you're letting someone else drive you

Then there are the travelers who turn to ride sharing services like Lyft and Uber to get them point-to-point. Happily for travelers who use these services, we've seen improvements to eliminate past headaches around cancelled rides and confusing surge prices.

Most notable is Lyft, which in November 2023 rolled out its On-Time Pickup Promise.

Here's how it works:

  1. You book a ride in advance (you can schedule up to 30 days out), specifying the exact time you want to leave for the airport. When you schedule, you lock in that price so you won't be subject to potential surge pricing.

  2. Lyft guarantees your driver will be there within ten minutes of your pickup time. If the driver doesn't show, the company pledges to give you up to $100 in Lyft credits to compensate lost time and potential expenses (such as if you book a taxi or an Uber instead).

That type of feature makes it so you can guarantee a car is there for your crack of dawn flight — and at least get generously compensated in the off-chance it's not.

2. Start saving, and plan for repayments

No matter how you get there, traveling for the holidays is an expensive proposition for many Americans. While 75% of holiday travelers plan to put some or all of their holiday travel costs on a credit card, many are also hoping to save to pay for their plans, according to our survey. In 2023, 18% of holiday travelers are turning to buy now, pay later services to help them pay for their travel, while 10% are taking out personal loans and 8% are taking out payday loans.

Given high interest rates, the latter options aren't necessarily the best because the cost of borrowing is so high this year. By setting money aside to make purchases in cash, you can avoid adding to your post-holiday debt obligations.

If you are going to pull out the plastic for your holiday travel, though, you should at least have a plan in place for how much you'll spend and how you're going to pay that debt off in 2024. Of those who put some of their holiday travel on a credit card in 2022, 8% reported in our survey that they still haven't paid off those expenses.

To avoid having your flights or gas bills looming over your Fourth of July next year, set up a repayment plan for yourself. You can start with NerdWallet’s credit card repayment calculator to figure out what you'll need to repay. Then, work that payment into a monthly plan so you can clear your debt and start saving for the 2024 holidays.

3. Examine your credit card options

According to our survey, holiday travelers say they'll spend $1,947 on average on holiday travel-related expenses. If you can afford to pay off your bill in full, then applying for a new travel rewards credit card can be an excellent way to maximize rewards for what's likely a period of higher-than-average spending.

Especially when you're spending that much in a short period of time, you can take advantage of travel credit card signup bonuses. You may also get benefits that cut down on your travel headaches. Many premium travel cards offer extra points when you book travel, annual statement credits for travel purchases, or reimbursement for the cost of programs that allow you to get through airport security faster or easier (like Global Entry or TSA PreCheck).

You might also find that your current card has an APR that's less attractive when it's holding onto a balance from the holidays. In that case, it may be worth considering a new balance transfer card to shift your travel spend into the new year. These cards offer a 0% APR for balance transfers, giving you more time to pay off your debt without having to pay interest.

Travel Cards from Our Partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1x-5x

5x on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3x on dining, select streaming services and online groceries, 2x on all other travel purchases, 1x on all other purchases.

Points

Intro offer

60,000

Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 when you redeem through Chase Travel℠.

Points
Chase Freedom Unlimited Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Freedom Unlimited®
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1.5%-5%

Enjoy 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.

Cashback

Intro offer

Up to $300

Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) - worth up to $300 cash back!

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
4.7
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

2x-5x

Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day. Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options.

Miles

Intro offer

75,000

Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel.

Miles
See more travel cards
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