We try to fit a lot into our holiday budgets, and travel can account for a pretty big slice of the pie. But even if you’re just beginning to think about the costs of visiting loved ones this holiday season, it’s not too late to save.
About half (49%) of American adults plan to spend money on flights and/or hotels this holiday season — that’s 123.5 million travelers, according to a new NerdWallet study.
And though 36% of these travelers say they’d skip buying gifts for friends and family if they were spending a lot to visit them this year, that level of sacrifice may not be entirely necessary.
If you’re scrambling for last-minute ways to save on holiday travel, here are some ideas to get you started:
1. Start watching rates, like, yesterday
Those who travel over the holidays book their flights 7.7 weeks before their departure date, on average, the NerdWallet survey found. You may be able to beat other travelers to the punch by buying before that peak booking time.
Also, set up alerts through popular booking sites like Kayak or Google Flights to keep an eye on rates. If they start creeping up as your travel dates near, you’re better off buying earlier than holding out for a last-minute deal and getting caught with astronomical fares.
» MORE: 6 ways to travel cheaply
2. Get serious about freeing up more money
More than 7 in 10 (71%) people who travel for the holidays start saving in advance, the NerdWallet study found. But even if your budget is tight and your travel dates are coming up soon, you can still look for easy ways to free up money.
Limit all optional expenses, such as meals out and entertainment, for several weeks. After all, holiday travel is one big optional expense; sacrificing drinks after work with friends for a few weeks could cover the price of your checked bag and a rideshare or two.
3. Make your credit card work for you
Use the card that stands to benefit you the most — one with decent rewards rates or other travel benefits like trip protection or no foreign transaction fees.
4. Don’t pay interest
Credit card interest can quickly negate any benefits from using a rewards card and can make your travel even more expensive. Still, 5% of people who put last year’s holiday travel on a credit card are still paying for it today, according to the survey.
If you know it’s going to take a few months to pay off your holiday travel, make a plan to minimize the impact of your credit card transactions. Opening a card with an interest-free introductory term is one option. But if time or your credit doesn’t allow for a new card, budget for higher-than-mandatory-minimum payments until you can pay it off.
5. Keep shopping after you book
After you’ve booked your flight, your deal-hunting doesn’t have to end. Most airlines will issue a full refund within 24 hours of purchase, even on nonrefundable tickets. The specifics vary by airline — so read up on your airline’s 24-hour cancellation policies — but you may be able to cancel and rebook if you find a lower rate within that first day.
A similar strategy can be used on hotels: If you make a cancellable reservation, keep checking rates. If they go down, you can cancel and rebook at the same hotel (or a different one, if the opportunity arises). Again, know the specifics of your reservation — if you try to cancel too close to arrival you could lose money.
6. Let your presence be their present
If travel is your top priority and you’ve done what you can but are still coming up short, don’t be afraid to skip traditional gift-giving. You wouldn’t be alone — 36% of travelers said they’d consider doing the same thing if they were spending a lot to visit friends and family. You’ve worked hard to get there; maybe they can come to you next holiday season.