Wring the Most From Your Airline Travel Dollars — Even During the Holidays

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Want to get away, maybe visit far-flung relatives or far-flung beaches during the holidays, but you’re concerned that flying will clean you out? Instead of avoiding the uncertainty, explore these smart money moves from travel experts that can help you save, even at high season.

Take the leap early

First off, take heart: Although it’s never the cheapest time of the year to travel, round-trip airfares for the Thanksgiving holiday are down about 3 percent from last year, according to a report by Hopper.com.

But in general when flying, booking earlier is nearly always better.

“Flights generally open 335 days before departure, but it’s often six or seven months before you see any activity. If you get in early and book a seat, you’ll have the best choice of what’s available,” said Wendy Perrin, a TripAdvisor travel advocate. “Plus, you’ll probably pay less for your flight, leaving more budget room to upgrade to premium economy … if you need to. Even if your first-choice seat is not available, select another option to ensure you have a seat assignment; it can usually be changed later.”

Every day between now and Christmas, average round-trip holiday airfare goes up about $1.60, according to Hopper.com. Book now for the best flight times and fares possible.

Select your seat ASAP

If possible, check in early from home. That’s the best way for those of us who don’t travel often to snag window, aisle and other choice seats. Print your boarding passes at home, if you can. That’s one less line to endure at the airport.

Volunteer to wait

If your travel schedule is flexible, ask the gate agent to put you on the volunteer list. You may end up with a free hotel and flight credit toward another trip.

“I did that last week,” said Thomas Spagnola, senior vice president of supplier relations at CheapOAir, who was guaranteed a seat on another flight within hours. “It was worth (a $300 voucher) to me. I stayed at the airport, had a good meal and did some work. If you have the flexibility and patience, that is definitely worthwhile. A $300 voucher can [often] buy you a round-trip ticket to just about anywhere in the United States.”

Keep an eye on the clock

If a flight is delayed more than 30 minutes, gate agents may give travelers a drink or meal voucher upon request, says Deidre Mathis, author o​f the ​budget travel book “Wanderlust: For the Young, Broke Professional.”

Travel with the early birds

Flights stack up, especially in gateway cities, as the day winds down. Travel as early in the day as possible to avoid delays.

Know your airport codes

It’s always a good idea to look at the codes placed on your checked baggage tags to make sure they are marked with the proper airport. The codes can often be confusing – DCA is the code for Washington’s Reagan National Airport. Check the one you need here. Write it down before you leave and double-check your luggage tags.

Join frequent flier programs

Even those who don’t travel often may quickly qualify for free drinks, meals and more, says Stefanie Michaels, known as Adventure Girl. “Joining a frequent flier program or signing up for [an airline’s] mileage credit cards can offer perks, such as discounted or even free baggage fee allowances and access to lounges, that can start at $50 per traveler on up,” she says. “Always contact the airline to find out what each program offers, as each will vary.”

Don’t jump at the lowest cost

Some discount airlines offer rock-bottom ticket prices but then charge bag and seat-preference fees. That is not true for all discount airlines – Southwest famously offers two free checked bags per passenger – but know what you are buying.

“You can customize your trip and can save money by picking the best plan that works for you,” says Spagnola. “Each airline has different types of bundled packages. … The different airlines each have different philosophies about upgrades and ancillaries.” The bottom line: Read the websites carefully.

Consider shipping your bags

“I’ve been a big fan of shipping my bags using baggage concierge services. They have negotiated freight space that can oftentimes save you on shipping vs. paying an airline — just ship to your destination,” says Michaels. If you are staying at a hotel, call its concierge and alert him that your bags might get there before you and to hold them for your arrival, she cautions.

Don’t ignore airline lounges

For about $50-$60 per day you can get free Wi-Fi, drinks, food, comfortable chairs and premium service that may come in handy. If a flight is delayed or canceled, the agents in the clubs can often find options not available from the main ticket agents. (Yes, even if you call the airline’s customer service 800 number.)

Tune in to gate announcements

Recently airlines have started asking those at the gate if they’d like to upgrade for a discounted fee (say an extra $50 or $100) for a business- or first-class seat, says Spagnola. If you can afford the fee, it will often pay for itself in a more comfortable seat, free food and drinks and free entertainment. Tip: When you print boarding passes – either at home or at the airport – you may also be offered such an upgrade that includes waived baggage fees.

Do you plan to travel during the holidays? Do you have smart travel secrets? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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