Your Money-Saving Guide to Holiday Vacations (or Staycations)

Sep 15, 2020

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Traveling over the holidays doesn’t have to be an ordeal. In this series, we’re sharing expert advice to help you use your credit cards to travel smarter and focus on having fun.

Regardless of where you’re heading during this year's holiday travel season, or even if you’re staying home, some planning can help transform stress into success.

Use these expert-approved tips to avoid common travel headaches, stretch your budget and make the most of your vacation or staycation.

Staying home

Make a staycation special with your favorite foods.

One easy way to save money (and time in transit) is to just stay put. But a staycation doesn’t have to equal an all-day Netflix marathon. Here are some other ideas:

Treat it like a real vacation. “Think about what you love to do on vacation and then find ways to do that stuff in your city,” says Sarah Von Bargen, who runs a lifestyle blog called Yes and Yes. “If you love to spend your vacation at the spa, book treatments at a spa in your city. If you love hiking and kayaking, find some new trails or state parks to explore.”

Hit up the popular restaurants. You know that hot new Italian joint that always has a line around the block? Depending on where you live, you could avoid the wait by going when the city is emptier during the holidays. (If you eat out a lot, it might be worth taking a look at the best cards for dining out.)

Eat well at home, too. Von Bargen recommends stocking your kitchen with foods you’re excited to eat. “A staycation means stocking up on all my favorite special-occasion foods: crab legs, really nice cheeses, berries and expensive yogurt,” she says. “No matter how much I spend on groceries, it’s still much less than I’d spend eating that same food at a restaurant, and it makes my staycation feel special.”

Stay at a hotel (for cheap or for free). Jazz up a staycation by staying somewhere new in your city. If you have a co-branded hotel credit card, it could be a good time to redeem a free night at a hotel. Other strategies include booking with HotelTonight or One:Night to score a heavily discounted room for a night.

Road trips

Save time and money by bundling sites together.

Cruising down California’s Highway 1 or visiting Utah's national parks could be the way to go if you have a few days (or more) off. Before you hit the road, use these tips to upgrade your road trip.

Choose national parks wisely. Allison Laypath, the Utah-based blogger behind Tips for Family Trips, recommends Death Valley, Everglades, Arches and Zion as good winter destinations. But if you’re hoping for a winter wonderland, there are still options: “Enjoy snow sports like ice skating, snowshoeing and sledding at Yosemite, Bryce Canyon or Rocky Mountain National Park,” she says.

Plan an efficient route. “Many national parks and monuments are near each other, especially in the West,” says Emily Hart, a middle school math teacher who has visited more than 40 U.S. national parks. “I plan my route well in advance to hit up as many as possible and cut down on unnecessary gas costs.”

Compare gas costs. In addition to planning a better route, there are more ways to save on fuel: “When your tank is running low, search for gas stations on Google Maps and check the current price per gallon,” say Katie Diederichs, who spent three months traveling with her boyfriend, Ben, around the western U.S. in their camper van and blogs at Two Wandering Soles. “We’ve seen up to a dollar in savings per gallon within a one-mile radius.”

Download plenty of entertainment. Unless you want to be stuck listening to your kids (or partner) asking, “Are we there yet?,” load your devices with music, podcasts and/or audio tours (e.g., this Big Sur guide) to keep everyone from going stir-crazy during the long drive.

Maintain your vehicle for winter driving. “Make sure your car is well maintained with a full tank of fuel, good tires and windshield wipers if there’s a chance you'll run into winter weather,” Laypath says. “Luck favors the prepared.”

Understand your credit card’s rental car insurance and/or roadside assistance. Major credit card issuers offer some form of rental car coverage, but the coverage varies depending on the card. Before you rent a car, call your issuer to check what is (and isn’t) included in the coverage. Same goes for roadside assistance: Some cards offer basic services, such as towing or a battery jump-start, for a flat fee, but you’ll want to know the terms before you take off.

Traveling abroad

To save on holiday flights, try traveling on the holiday itself.

If you’re escaping the snow for an Australian summer — or hitting up Belgium’s famous Christmas markets — here's how to make sure your international trip goes off without a hitch.

Check the expiration date on your passport. Your passport should be valid for at least six months beyond your trip. Some countries will deny you entry if your passport expires sooner. To be safe, check the requirements for the country you’re visiting on the U.S. Department of State’s website. If you're running short on time, look up local, credible businesses that can expedite your passport renewal for you.

Pay attention to where your flights connect. Christine Amorose Merrill, a travel and lifestyle blogger based in San Diego, recommends this. “Cheap flights in the winter often connect in places where snowstorms are common, and delays can be inevitable,” she says. “Avoid Chicago and Denver [as layovers] if you want to get to where you’re going on schedule.”

Being flexible with dates can help you save on flights. If you can, fly on the actual holiday, Amorose Merrill says. “There are often really cheap red-eyes on New Year’s Eve. I once had a flight that took off at 11:59 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, and I got to see the fireworks from above,” she says.

Look into Global Entry. Dreading long lines at the airports? Consider getting a credit card that reimburses the $100 application fee for Global Entry, which expedites the customs screening process when returning from international destinations. Global Entry also includes TSA Precheck, which can speed up your trip through security even if you're traveling domestically. Note that this requires an in-person interview, and the closest center may be far from where you live.

Avoid foreign transaction fees. If you’re not careful about which credit cards you use abroad, you could find yourself paying extra fees — up to 3% — on that cute Parisian hotel or gourmet dinner. Use or apply for a card with no foreign transaction fees to keep your balance low.


To save on cruises, bring your own booze if you can.

Cruises might not be for everyone, but they're a popular way for families to spend time together during the winter months. Follow this advice for smoother sailing:

Shop around before you book. “Cruise lines offer various holiday promotions that can include perks like beverage packages or ‘kids sail free,'" says Don Bucolo, who runs the EatSleepCruise blog with his wife, Heidi. In other words, don’t settle for the first cruise that catches your eye.

Provide your own (alcoholic) beverages. John Widmer, who has written about cruise hacks on his blog, Roaming Around the World, suggests bringing your own champagne for that New Year’s Eve toast. “Most major cruise lines allow you to bring a bottle of champagne or wine that you can enjoy in your cabin,” he says. “It’s an affordable way to indulge in what would otherwise be a pricey bottle of bubbly on a cruise.”

Consider booking (or creating) your own excursions. Here’s a way to save on activities: Bypass the cruise line and research your own excursions in advance. "You can often find similar, or better, excursions for less money by using third-party vendors or local tour providers,” Bucolo says.

Don’t forget about the crew. Widmer recommends showing the staff a bit of appreciation by giving them a card or small gift. “Your stateroom attendant, dining room server and others work hard to make you happy during the holidays,” he says. “It can be a nice gesture to show them extra thanks during this time of year.”

Check whether your credit card has travel insurance — and what exactly it covers. Given how expensive cruises can be, a canceled flight that causes you to miss your departure can quickly ruin your trip. Many credit cards provide trip cancellation and interruption insurance, but coverage varies. Call your issuer to find out what expenses would be reimbursed.

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