How to Keep Travel Costs Low During Holidays

For us, family and friends are a major part of the holiday season. Given that our family and friends are spread out in many parts of the country, this sometimes means holiday travel for the five of us, and that, of course, means watching costs carefully. If I can trim the cost of holiday travel for our family by 25% or more, that has a very significant impact on our December budget.

Over the years, many holiday trips have given us a large repertoire of tactics to use. Here are some of the ones we’ve found the most valuable when traveling for the holidays.

Prepare your vehicle properly for the trip if you’re driving.

Before you leave on any winter driving trip, you should take a few steps to make sure your car is ready for the trip.

First of all, examine the tires and make sure they have plenty of tread on them. The easy way to do this is to take a penny and insert it in the tire treads with Lincoln’s head inwards. If you can see all of Lincoln’s head, you need to replace those tires as soon as possible, ideally before you travel.

While you’re examining your tires, use a tire pressure gauge and make sure they’re all properly inflated (a tire pressure gauge can be found at almost any gas station and every auto parts store for a dollar or two, and proper inflation numbers can be found in your owner’s manual for your car). If they’re not properly inflated, stop by your local service station, as many have free air available for people to inflate tires themselves. It’s easy, takes just a minute, and improves your fuel efficiency.

Check the maintenance schedule for your vehicle. If there’s any maintenance that needs to be done before you would return from your trip, get it done now.

Fill up on gas before you leave. My own experience with both our old SUV and newer van is that ethanol-added gas is not worth the savings and that buying non-ethanol gas will get you so much better mileage that it pays for the difference. It’s also worthwhile to use an app like GasBuddy to figure out where the best deals for gas are along your route.

Make sure that you have some emergency supplies in the vehicle with you in case you’re stranded by the roadside on a very cold night. I recommend, at the very least, some extra blankets, a bag of sand (for getting yourself out of a stuck situation), a first aid kit, an external battery for charging a cell phone and I’m assuming you have extra clothes along on the trip anyway

These tactics will not only reduce the cost of the drive, but will also reduce the likelihood of an accident or a roadside issue which could mean a very big expense.

If you’re flying, choose to fly at unusual times.

This is a really great strategy for saving a ton on your flights. If at all possible, plan your flight for an unusual time. Avoid the day before or the day after a major holiday, as well as the weekend before and weekend after. The more breathing room you give yourself for exactly when to fly, the more likely you are to find a really good last-minute bargain on your flights.

Basically, the tighter your schedule is, the earlier you should buy tickets to make sure your schedule matches, but the more expensive it’s probably going to be. The more you loosen your schedule, the more likely it is you can find cheap tickets to fly for the holidays, so give yourself breathing room on both ends and try to avoid holiday weekend flying.

Bring food from home rather than buying it along the way.

Eating while traveling is expensive. A meal at a roadside restaurant, drive-thru or an airport is going to cost you a lot of money that you don’t really need to spend.

Rather, plan ahead for this by buying food to take with you on the trip. If you’re driving, you can easily pack a picnic meal the night before you depart, grabbing it on your way out the door as you leave the next morning. It’s going to be cheaper, healthier and tastier than almost anything you’d get along the way, plus you don’t have to slow down your trip for food. Be sure to bring along plenty of snacks as well, as snacks in hand are always cheaper than what you’ll find at a gas station or a rest stop vending machine.

You can do the same thing when traveling through an airport, though you should keep in mind that the TSA will confiscate any liquids more than three ounces in volume. Thus, take along empty water bottles that you can fill once you’re through airport security.

Ship presents rather than packing a suitcase.

If you’re taking a bunch of gifts for a holiday gift exchange, it’s going to be much cheaper and more reliable to ship them yourself rather than trusting them to make it through airport luggage during an incredibly busy time of the year. Ship a large box of gifts and clothes to the destination if you’re flying so that you can make the trip just with a carry-on bag. Ship it a little early so that it has plenty of time to arrive at your destination. Uncle Larry can just stick it in his garage for a couple of days. (You can do the same on the return trip, too; just repack the box and stop by a UPS Store when you’re about to leave.)

Even better, if you’re ordering gifts from online retailers, simply have those items shipped to the destination and inform your host of which packages are coming. They can set aside a couple of boxes for you to save you from having to check a bag or ship a separate box.

Share lodging at the destination.

If you’re doing more than a day trip, you’ll need some form of lodging at your destination, and that opens up a lot of options.

The key to saving money on lodging is to share lodging with other people at the destination. There may be family and friends at the destination that can house you for a few days in a guest bedroom or on a couch, for starters. See if there are any family and friends that can offer you some short term lodging, bringing the cost down to practically nothing.

If such options are unavailable, look for options for sharing lodging with other travelers. If multiple families are coming into the area at once, look into renting a house for a few days using VRBO or Airbnb. While the initial cost of something like that might be high, it can actually become quite cheap if the cost is split among multiple families and spread across several days. For example, you might be alarmed at a cost of $1,000 for a four-day rental, but if three families are there for four days, you’re reducing the cost per night to something more palatable.

If you’re single or a couple without children, you can even look into splitting a hotel room with another single person or couple to reduce lodging expenses. Sharing a hotel room with a sibling or cousin can save you both a lot of money.

Ask for or request gifts that take up little space.

If it’s socially appropriate, ask for gifts that take up very little space. Items like gift cards and pocket-sized items are really nice when receiving a gift at a remote location because it means that they’re incredibly easy to transport back home. They can fit into a carry-on bag or even into a pocket, meaning that the recipient (you, in this case) doesn’t have to worry about transporting or shipping the item.

If you are involved with a holiday celebration where there are remote travelers, it can be worth an email or text to everyone involved to suggest this arrangement to everyone. Just simply remind everyone that small gifts are much easier for travelers to deal with, and mention things like gift cards, certificates or anything pocket-sized. Another option: give the person a picture of the gift but ship the item itself to their home shortly after the holidays.

Eat a big meal before departing to return home.

As with packing food to take with you when you leave, the reason for this is to make it easier to avoid eating at a roadside restaurant or at an airport restaurant. Plan on eating a meal at your destination shortly before you leave and fill yourself up.

A big warm meal in your belly will make it much easier to travel home with just a snack or two, skipping or delaying a meal along the way, which will keep money in your pocket.

Many hosts will plan accordingly, often having a nice meal before guests begin to depart. For the holiday gathering with Sarah’s extended family, there’s always a large breakfast to send off guests on their return trip home. Take advantage of it.

Little tweaks make a big difference.

Small steps like this might seem like simple things, but they often translate into surprisingly big savings. Improving your fuel efficiency by 20% on a long car trip can save you quite a bit of money, for example. Avoiding even a single meal at a restaurant for a family of five can easily save $50. Sharing a hotel room with a cousin can save you both $50. Being flexible with a flight can save you hundreds. Those types of savings can really make a difference in terms of the financial impact of a holiday trip.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.