“Home for the holidays” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it when you’re broke or unemployed. Instead of warm thoughts of spending time with loved ones over homemade meals, you might be calculating cash advances and counting pennies for holiday gifts. With Thanksgiving and Christmas so close together, it can be hard to arrange affordable travel plans twice within 30 days, especially when you’re more than a couple hundred miles away. Being a professional broke-ass, here some tips I’ve learned over the past few years that have helped me make it home for the holidays.
1. Book early. If you’re not already on your way home for turkey dinner on Thursday, chances are you won’t be going for very cheap, if at all. Experts say that September is the ideal time to book the best deals on holiday travel. But if you haven’t yet booked a trip for Christmas, there may still be hope.
2. Choose one or the other. Look at the amount of time you can spend visiting compared to the cost of the trip. For most people Thanksgiving is a four day weekend, whereas many companies shut down for up to two weeks during the Christmas and New Years season. Not to mention more time off means more flexibility in booking your trip- aka lower prices!
3. Be flexible with your dates. Do your research and see what days and times are cheapest. Once when I had to be back to work on a Monday, I saved $200 by choosing the 7a-830a Monday morning flight over flying out on Sunday. Try to avoid the busiest travel days at all costs (the Wednesday before and Sunday after Thanksgiving, and December 23, 26, 27).
4. Don’t rely on travel sites like Expedia or Orbitz for the lowest prices. Many low-cost, independent air carriers do not provide information to the travel search engines, so you might miss out on a huge deal. Check out the low-cost air carriers on their own websites.
5. Think outside the airport. I live about 14 hours from my family by Greyhound and Amtrak, but I’ve made the trip a few times and saved a couple hundred dollars each trip. Five years ago I signed up for Greyhound’s Road Rewards program, and have received a handful of discount coupons ever since. Every random weekend trip you take on a bus throughout the year adds up. Most people would rather shell out big bucks for convenience—an hour and a half flight vs a 12 hour bus ride could mean a difference of well over a hundred dollars. But if you look for a nighttime express service, say from 1030pm to 1030am with only 2 stops along the way, you’ll be there in a normal night of sleep’s time. (If you have a hard time sleeping in vehicles, make sure to board with some Tylenol PM and headphones.)
6. Carpool. See if anyone you know within a reasonable radius is heading close to your destination. Chip in for gas and turn it into a fun road trip. Living in New York, I once spoke to a friend in Boston about me taking a $20 train upstate and meeting him along the way if he’d pick me up. Just make sure it’s a reliable person, because you don’t want to be stranded in the middle of nowhere on Christmas Eve.
7. Make a friend or family member an offer that’s hard to refuse. If you live in a hot tourist destination (ex: NYC at New Years), see if you can convince someone to drive you back one way in exchange for free lodging and the experience of a lifetime. Sure, you might have to brave the crowds with them in Times Square on December 31st, but isn’t that better than charging a flight you can’t afford?
8. Redeem airline miles for free flights. Most companies have blackout dates, but I was surprised to find out through my Spirit Airlines Mastercard that I have enough miles for a free flight during the peak holiday season. (I didn’t end up choosing that route because I can also redeem those miles for two roundtrip tickets to the Caribbean during the off season, which to me seemed like a better deal. After paying taxes on that “free flight,” my fare would’ve almost been as much as a train ride anyway.)
9. Redeem credit card reward points for a prepaid Visa or MasterCard gift card. This kind of goes hand in hand with number 8, but if you can get a $50 gift card through credit card points, that’s money you can put towards your trip home. Also, credit card companies like Citibank offer Thank You Points, which can be redeemed for free items in their online gift store. Maybe you have enough points for that video game your brother wants, giving yourself an extra $50 to spend on your trip.
10. Ask for part or all of the trip to be paid for as a Christmas gift. Who really needs that many socks, anyway?
11. Check out alternate airports, bus terminals, or train stations within driving distance. If you can find a significantly cheaper deal to a nearby location, convince a friend or family member to come get you.
12. Be willing to travel more. If you’re traveling across the country or international and there is a cheap flight to a city 150 miles from your destination, look into taking a bus those extra 150 miles. This can be a bit risky considering weather conditions and delays, but I once flew jetBlue from LA to Chicago, and then jumped on a $30 express Megabus for four hours to Toledo to visit my family. I saved over $200.
13. This one takes a bit of planning, but make sure to follow your favorite budget airline(s) and travel websites on Twitter. It’s a much quicker way to watch for a sale than visiting each website every day. Also, some airlines and hotels are participating in Black Friday deals this year, offering discounts on trips booked on 11/26 for travel before the end of the year.
14. This may be a bit extreme depending on the size of your family and whether you’re their favorite child or not, but consider celebrating a few days before or after the actual holiday. Traveling on Thanksgiving or Christmas days can be much cheaper than the surrounding days. I know someone who waits until mid-January to fly home and celebrate Christmas with his family each year, and only pays a fraction of the price for a plane ticket.
15. If all else fails, order some takeout and video chat during dinner so that it feels like you’re right there at the table. Happy holidays!