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Of Americans who say they intend to spend money on flights or hotels this holiday season (which is about half), the average they plan to spend is $1,946.50, a September 2023 NerdWallet survey found.
That's up from the $1,582 Americans said they'd spend in 2022's version of the same survey. It's still even higher than the $1,814 Americans said they'd spend in the 2021 version of the survey — the year that many travelers began returning to holiday travel after taking 2020 off.. That data is all according to an online survey commissioned by NerdWallet and conducted by The Harris Poll of more than 2,000 U.S. adults 18 and older.
That higher spending figure is also particularly compelling considering that airfare prices are actually down about 13% year-over-year. How are people spending more this holiday season if airfares are lower? Many are upgrading to higher fare classes — exchanging basic economy for the fare that avoids the middle seat — or perhaps even splurging for a premium class. Others are booking longer flights — finally returning to international travel after years of border restriction.
When it comes to hotels, many travelers are exchanging family stays with hotel stays, piling on to the costs. In short, don't be fooled by lower prices: holiday travel in 2023 might cost you more than ever.
But there's hope. Here are NerdWallet's best ideas on how to save money on holiday travel in 2023:
7 ways to save money on holiday travel in 2023
1. Use miles or points for flights
Using points or miles to book flights can help you save cash on a portion of the trip, which is a trend that skews younger. Sure, 30% of overall travelers say they plan to use points/miles to pay for travel expenses according to NerdWallet's 2023 Holiday Travel Report, but an even-higher 40% of millennial holiday travelers (the generation most likely to use points/miles for this year’s travel expenses) say they will.
If you have miles or points, spend them down. Unlike the conventional recommendations on saving money, NerdWallet almost always recommends spending — rather than saving — travel rewards. Just like inflation, points inflation is real as airlines and hotels regularly raise the number of points or miles needed to book travel.
But unlike money, you can't invest or earn interest on your points, and they have no value outside of travel — which is why it's best to spend them on travel you'd book anyway.
2. Use free night benefits on hotel award stays
Speaking of points and miles on flights, use them on hotel stays too. But many hotel brands do one better — offering free nights to loyalty members who book on points.
For example, Marriott, Hilton and IHG offer a fifth-night-free benefit when you book a consecutive four-night stay using points. This benefit doesn’t apply to cash bookings.
If you don’t have enough points to afford the first four nights, consider applying for a hotel credit card — as you could likely earn the points you need from the welcome offer.
3. Be flexible with your travel dates
In general, you’ll be able to find better deals if you don’t fly during popular times. For example, a flight from New York to Miami might cost more miles if you fly on Friday than if you fly on Thursday. Returning home on a Sunday night may cost more than on a Monday night.
Additionally, if you’re going away for any holiday, it's usually cheaper to fly on the day of the holiday (or the evening before) rather than a few days before. For example, a nonstop one-way flight from New York to Paris during Christmas week costs $868 on Dec. 22 or $910 on Dec. 23 this year. However, those flying on Dec. 24 or Dec. 25 will have to pay only $482 or $563, respectively.
NerdWallet analyzed the busiest days to fly during the winter holidays. And though they don't always correlate with lower airfare, they almost always do — so consider avoiding the busy travel days and flying (or even driving) on the less busy ones.
» Learn more: How to save time and frustration on holiday travel
4. Plan your ride shares in advance to save money and time
More crowded airports means higher prices and lesser availability from ride sharing services like Lyft or Uber. Luckily in 2023, there are new tools to alleviate those challenges.
Among the best improvements is a new feature Lyft unveiled in November 2023 called the On-Time Pickup Promise. Here's how it works:
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.
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).
5. Use a credit card that provides travel insurance
Travel insurance protects you and your nonrefundable deposits from emergencies that might derail your vacation. However, these policies can cost hundreds of dollars and they've only gotten pricier in recent years. According to Squaremouth, a travel insurance comparison engine, trip insurance purchases through the site have increased by 300% from 2020 and 70% from 2019.
During the 2023 holiday season, more than one-fifth of 2023 holiday travelers (21%) said they plan to buy or have bought travel insurance for their holiday trips — a figure that's up from just 16% of 2022 holiday travelers.
Luckily, you might not even have to pay for it. Some credit cards offer free travel insurance when you book the trip using your card. Research what travel insurance coverage is offered by your credit card. If you already get free travel insurance from your credit card, you can save a lot of money by not having to buy separate coverage.
Although your card’s coverage may not be as comprehensive as a stand-alone travel insurance policy, it may be enough. On most credit cards, medical coverage is not included in the free travel insurance policy provided. If this applies to you, consider purchasing stand-alone travel medical insurance. A medical-only policy may be cheaper than a comprehensive travel insurance plan.
6. Use a credit card that waives foreign transaction fees
If you plan on going abroad and you don’t have a credit card that waives foreign transaction fees, you may be stuck paying extra. An average foreign transaction fee of 3% of the purchase price is added each time you swipe your card. These fees can quickly add up, and frankly, you can avoid them.
There are plenty of credit cards, including no-fee cards, that waive foreign transaction fees. See if the card in your wallet already waives these fees. If it doesn’t, consider applying for a card that offers 0% foreign transaction fees.
7. Use a bank that refunds ATM fees
When you’re traveling abroad, you may find yourself in a situation where credit cards aren’t accepted so you’ll need to pay in cash. If you don’t have a bank account that reimburses ATM fees, you may be stuck paying two sets of fees: a fee charged by the ATM you’re using and a fee charged by your bank to withdraw cash at a different bank’s ATM.
These fees can fluctuate and add unnecessary extra costs to your trip. To avoid this scenario, open an account with a bank that reimburses ATM fees.
» Learn more: 4 best banks for international travel
You can save money on holiday travel in 2023
If you want to save money on your holiday travels, making strategic changes to your approach can make a big difference. First, consider booking flights with miles and hotel stays with points. Doing so will not only offer extra flexibility, but it can also unlock benefits like a fifth night free when booking four award nights at a hotel.
In addition, use the perks you already have from your bank and credit card issuer to avoid paying for travel insurance, foreign transaction fees and ATM fees. These tweaks will allow you to save money on holiday travel.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card