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While we’re all still processing the end of a chaotic summer in travel, it’s already time to start thinking about the 2023 holiday season.
Like last year, you might not have an all-out, bucket-list, everybody-in-your-family-will-come type of trip. Maybe your new holiday traditions will take you to Christmas markets in Germany (the dollar is strong, making Europe ... a budget destination?) or watching the ball drop in Times Square.
If you're planning to travel for the holidays, now is a good time to start researching — and booking — flights, rental cars and hotels. Especially if you haven’t traveled much this year, you’ll want to keep in mind these tips for booking holiday travel.
1. Book early before prices go up
Last-minute deals can be found on hotels and rental cars if you're willing to wait to book. That said, the move is risky, as inventory may be unavailable by the time you start your search.
According to data from the travel app Hopper, domestic airfares for flights the week of Christmas are higher than in the last 5 years. The cheapest time to buy these flights is by Oct. 20, but at the very least, travelers need to book before Thanksgiving to avoid the highest prices.
Similarly, flights during the week of Thanksgiving should be booked by the same day (Oct. 20) for cheaper fares. Hopper predicts flight prices will rise $10 daily, on average, from the beginning of November until Thanksgiving.
2. Fly on the holiday to save
For the best deals, consider traveling on the holiday. Flights on Christmas Day will mean celebrating the holiday before or after, but, much like the busiest days to fly around Thanksgiving, there's often greater availability and lower costs.
If you aren't willing to travel on the holiday itself, avoid the peak travel days to minimize the likelihood of delays that will impact your trip and time with friends and family. Keep this timing in mind for return flights as well. This year, Hopper recommends flying on Monday, Dec. 19, or Tuesday, Dec. 20, and returning the week after, but before New Year’s Eve. This could save you up to $120 on airfare.
To avoid delays and cancellations, book an early morning flight. It's less likely to be affected by other delayed flights throughout the day. Plus, if your flight gets canceled, there will be more opportunities to get to your final destination the same day.
3. Redeem points for your flight or hotel stay
If you’re looking at prices and thinking of using points instead, some of the same strategies for finding cheap cash rates apply.
In some cases, you’ll be able to save points when you book early or travel on low-demand days because loyalty programs, like Southwest's, use a dynamic award-pricing system. When the cash prices are low, it’ll cost fewer points or miles as well.
Unfortunately, if you don’t have enough points to book, it’s too late to open a new credit card and earn the welcome bonus in time. Many cards have a three-month period to earn the welcome bonus, and it may take up to another eight weeks to get the bonus points deposited into your account.
That said, you can still open a travel credit card and book your trip with it; airfare and lodging can take a serious chunk out of your minimum spend to earn the welcome bonus.
» Learn more: How to spend $4,000 in 3 months
4. Check cancellation and change policies
General health and wellness remain unpredictable, so it’s worth checking change and cancellation policies before you book anything.
Several of the largest U.S.-based airlines have done away with change and cancellation fees for most fares, with the exception of basic economy tickets.
Though third-party airfare aggregators like Expedia and Travelocity are a great way to see flights on multiple airlines, you'll often have better protection and better access to customer service if you book directly with the carrier. Wherever you book, be aware of when you’ll be entitled to a refund or credit if you or the airline cancels.
You might also consider purchasing travel insurance, but read the fine print, since many policies might not cover COVID-related issues. Many credit cards offer certain limited travel protections, so familiarize yourself with the benefits of the card you use to book tickets as well.
Snagging travel insurance — which usually costs between 4-8% of your total estimated trip expenses — can be a smart money move, and is also one of our favorite holiday travel safety tips.
» Learn more: The best travel insurance companies right now
5. Line up your travel perks for the holiday season
When the holiday season is upon us, you’ll be glad you took advantage of every available perk — or earned them ahead of time.
The big one for this year is TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. Lines at TSA security were staggeringly long at some airports this summer, and they might not get much better by the holidays. If your credit card comes with one of these security benefits, consider enrolling before it’s too late.
We have some creative ideas for ways you can gift TSA PreCheck or Global Entry to loved ones this year.
If you've been traveling this year and are close to earning elite status or the Southwest Companion Pass, think about how you can plan your fall travel to earn these perks ahead of the busy months. They might be easier to earn than you think. Hotels and airlines have continued to lower their elite status requirements this year. A quick mattress run might be all you need.
Not only will elite status benefits kick in as soon as you earn them, but you’ll have more time to use them since they’ll be valid through the end of next year.
If you're planning holiday travel in 2023
If you take just one tip for booking holiday travel, it should be this: the earlier, the better. You’ll find cheaper rates and more availability. Plus, looser cancellation policies mean you can make adjustments later.
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