Some people are planners and others are improvisers. Happily, both types can score real travel bargains during the winter holidays.
Saving on travel means striking the right balance between affordability and preference. For example, families with children and a need for specific seating and direct flights may need to plan earlier to secure such reservations. Travelers with more scheduling flexibility can roll the dice on last-minute deals.
According to recent figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation the Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year's holiday timeframes are among the busiest long-distance (50 or more miles away) travel periods of the year. Thanksgiving is busier - during the six-day November travel segment, the number of long-distance trips increases by 54 percent. During the Christmas/New Year's Holiday period the number rises by 23 percent - all winter holiday numbers are compared to average travel volume for the remainder of the year. About 91 percent of this holiday travel is made by personal vehicle - most of it on the actual holiday date -- while only 5 to 6 percent are by air with only 2 to 3 percent by bus, train, ship or other means.
No matter how you're planning to travel, it's important to study your needs first and then plan accordingly. Here are some tips to follow:
Drive smart or don't drive at all. If you're using your own vehicle, make sure your collision and liability coverage are adequate to cover any repairs on your own car and potential medical and repair costs for other motorists if you're in an accident. If you're planning to rent a car, speak with your auto insurance agent before you go. Many personal policies do extend collision and liability coverage to rentals, but check the limits of your coverage and make a comparison call in advance to rental car agencies you're considering to check the cost and features of their collision and liability coverage. This pre-trip insurance check is particularly important if you're planning holiday travel outside the United States. If you are visiting a place with excellent public transportation or safe bike routes, check pricing. An affordable bike rental or multi-day city or regional bus-and-rail passes may eliminate the need for a car altogether.
Go "low:" Low season, that is. If you're thinking of a big-city or international destination during the holidays, examine transportation, lodging and activity pricing on the dates closest to or on the holiday you're considering. In Europe, for example, winter is considered the "low" travel season, so hotel rates for air or ground transport might be significantly cheaper than what's charged during the warm months. While top domestic or overseas family destinations generally require reservations months in advance, there might also be bargains at amusement parks or tourist destinations that are actually open on Christmas or New Year's Day, when families typically huddle at home. Check destination hotels closer to the date to see if they're offering special rates or packages.
Put your membership dollars to work. If you belong to an auto club or have credit cards with particular travel benefits, check whether any of those benefits - from actual mileage points to coupon discounts - can be used to save money.
Check your home, health and business insurance. If you are traveling domestically or internationally, see if your workplace or personal health policy will pick up your medical costs if you are injured or become ill on a trip. Be very clear about destination and ask if your policy will cover everything it covers at home, including emergency transportation services from local road ambulance service to medevac helicopter. Also check with your home or rental insurance agent to see how extensively your policy will cover personal liability or property damage and loss out of town or out of the country. Many people don't realize that some or all of their personal insurance coverage may travel with them. And if you pay for any form of business insurance, ask whether that coverage applies to any specific risks you may face while traveling.
Consider travel insurance to fill any gaps. Once you've checked all of your personal coverage, investigate buying a travel insurance policy to cover everything from trip cancellation and lost luggage to advanced medical care and medical transportation at your destination.
Check rates again right before you travel. It's possible that some airfares and hotel rates might drop close to your stay date if overall bookings are low. Make calls a few days before you leave. If there's a rebooking fee, politely ask if you can have it removed. If not, see if it's worth paying the fee if it gets you a significantly cheaper deal.
Watch your luggage. Many airlines charge ascending fees for every checked bag, so packing light has never made more sense. However, major air and ground shipping companies are now offering luggage-shipping services for domestic and overseas travelers with pickup options at their ground facilities. Make a call and see if this option makes sense, particularly if you take extra clothes or gifts with you at the holidays.
Bottom line: Holiday travel can be crowded and expensive, but opportunities abound for long-term planners and last-minute bargain hunters. Plan travel according to your profile and preferences to save money.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa's financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney