How To Save Money On Holiday Travel

This Christmas, we’re visiting my family for a few days. They live about six hours south of us (once you factor in bathroom breaks and the like), so this is going to be a big trip.

Your money-saving options for holiday travel really depend on where you’re going, how long you’re staying, and what resources you have available. Here are some tips to help you save money on transportation, food, and lodging while traveling this Christmas.

Pick The Most Cost-Effective Travel Option

Should you drive your own car, rent a car, take the bus, take a plane? Weigh your options and decide which course of action is the most cost-effective one for your needs.

Our cheapest option would be to drive my car, but with more than a quarter-million miles on the odometer, I’ve become wary of taking it for long roadtrips — I’m likely to get back from Christmas needing a major repair, or worse, break down somewhere between here and my hometown. So this year, we’ll be renting a car. It does cost a little more upfront, but today’s cars get dramatically better gas mileage than my 90s model, so we’ll save some money there. Renting a car also comes with the security of knowing that if anything happens on the trip, the rental company will come bring me a new car so I don’t have to fiddle with repairs.

If your car is in good condition and relatively new, driving yourself will probably be your cheapest option. Be sure to check it over for any maintenance concerns and make some tweaks to maximize your gas mileage before you leave, though, and pack an emergency kit just in case.

For longer distances, air travel can be surprisingly cheap, but it requires having an airport close to your home AND close to your destination, and that doesn’t always match up. Air travel is also very busy this time of year, so it can be a hectic experience. If you’re traveling by air, be sure to have some room for flexibility in your schedule — winter weather can cause delays.

Bus travel can be a cheap way to get from point A to point B, but it can be a long, uncomfortable trip and it forces you to stick to the bus service’s schedule. That said, if you don’t have a reliable car, bus travel might be cheaper than renting a vehicle, in some cases.

Pack Your Own Snacks

If you’re driving, one of the sneakiest expenses that comes with travel is stopping for convenience store snacks and drinks. These products are almost always ludicrously overpriced, so you’re better off stopping at the grocery store the day before your trip and picking up a few snacks to take along. If you do have to stop on the road, try to find a Wal-mart or grocery store — you’ll get more for your money than you’ll get at the grocery store.

For longer trips, a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter provide a cheap, filling meal that can keep you from having to stop at a fast-food joint for lunch.

On a side note, don’t forget to pack any over-the-counter medication you might need, too — headache, stomach, sinus and allergies, etc. If you think convenience store snacks are pricey, you haven’t seen the price gouging on convenience store medication.

Will You Need A Place To Stay?

If you’re staying overnight or for several days, the cheapest option is obviously to stay with the family members you’re visiting. My parents have a spare bedroom that Crystal and I will be using while we’re visiting, so we won’t have to spend anything on lodging. Of course, not every family has the space or civility to offer you a place to stay, but be sure to explore your other options for free or cheap lodging before you shell out for a hotel.

Who do you know in the town you’re visiting? Maybe your high school science teacher is going out of town for the holidays and needs someone to house-sit, or your parents’ neighbor has a spare room you could use overnight. Obviously, you don’t want to impose on anyone else’s Christmas, but with so many people traveling for the holidays, there’s likely a vacant place for you to crash if you’re willing to reach out and ask for it.

Hotels are the standard choice when those other options don’t work out, but hotels can be expensive, especially during Christmas when they’re likely to have less vacancies. If you’re booking a hotel room, be sure to ask for a discount. Discounts for membership in AAA, AARP, active duty military service or veteran status are all very common at hotels. If you don’t qualify for those discounts, but know someone who does, see if you can have them book the room for you. Even if you don’t have a way to qualify, ask for a discount anyway — an empty room doesn’t make the hotel any money, so you’d be surprised what they’re willing to offer to fill the space.

If you do stay at a hotel, be sure to check to see if they have any sort of rewards program. Most are free, and even if you only stay at hotels a few times a year, it can be enough to eventually earn you a free stay. If it doesn’t cost anything to join, not participating is just throwing away money.

For a more rustic stay, check local campgrounds. Many have cabins for rent, sometimes for prices cheaper than local hotels. With Christmas just a little over a week away, it may be too late to book one of these, though. Be sure to ask about extra costs, too — some cabins tack on an extra cleaning fee or other additional fees that can make them MORE expensive than local hotels.

If you’re a little braver and are visiting close to an urban center, you might have some luck finding cheap lodging through something like or

Are you traveling this Christmas? How are you saving money on your trip?

Photo by Martin Pettitt.

Posted in How To Save Money