I used to think flying on Christmas Day was nuts. Then we wanted to save money AND travel for the holidays. Here are 10 Christmas travel tips for holiday travel to save your sanity and budget.
Travel for the holidays
Last year we traveled at the holidays. Let me clarify – we traveled on Christmas Day.
I hadn’t been home to see my family over the Christmas holidays since Squish was born.
We almost always travel in the off-season. As two frugal folks (who also happen to be homebodies AND crowd-adverse), it makes sense for us to stay home when it’s most expensive (and the busiest) to travel.
If we do fly to my home over a holiday/celebration, it has been for Easter, or Thanksgiving, or someone’s birthday or anniversary.
Not the biggie. Not Christmas.
Holiday travel at Christmas
Every Christmas and birthday I miss my family. As Miss Independent, as soon as I could move away (for university), I did. I have lived away from home for so many years now, and I still miss them on these occasions.
My mom is probably the most festive, celebratory person I’ve ever known. She LOVES holidays and decorating and baking and gifts and surprises to make her family feel special. My first birthday away from my mom, even though I was a full-on adult, just wasn’t the same. No-one does birthdays like her.
So after way too many big occasions away from them, I decided I really wanted our family to go there for Christmas. Even though it would be more money. Even though it would be chaotic to travel at the holidays with a child, and more relaxing at home. None of that stuff mattered. I wanted my mama! (And the rest of my family too)
So we started searching and trying to figure out the most affordable way to travel at Christmas.
You can save money on travel during Christmas and there can be holiday travel deals, but in general this is not a cheap time to travel. Since this is fresh in my mind, I want to share Christmas travel tips to save you money and help make your holiday travel as low stress as possible.
Related reading: Check out these early Black Friday deals to save money while getting your Christmas shopping done ahead of time.
10 tips for travel at Christmas and flying on Christmas Day
1. Pre-select your seats when you travel for the holidays
We don’t usually do this even flying with our toddler because we’re frugal after all. We take the gamble that seats together will be available when we check in online 24 hours before the flight and it usually works out for us.
But flying at the holidays I wasn’t sure if we would have the same luck. I really didn’t want to risk sitting far apart from my husband when we were traveling together on Christmas day. We paid the extra money and for holiday travel I felt like it was totally worth it.
2. Stock up on festive snacks from a bulk store
Stop by a bulk store and buy some snacks for the plane. Bulk stores are not only usually great for prices but you can also get a bunch of small amounts of food, instead of having to buy full packages of just a couple of things. Food variety helps kids pass the time on plane rides.
Before having kids, I had no idea how important lots of different food snacks are when traveling, but it really is parenting gold. Plus, more and more bulk stores are letting you bring your own containers now so that cuts down on waste even more – yay!
3. Embrace flying on Christmas Day
Budget tip: fly on December 25th. Yup, on Christmas Day. I initially thought this was a terrible idea but it ended up working out really well. If you are looking for cheap Christmas flights – I’m sorry but there really aren’t any that are truly cheap. BUT it is much cheaper to fly on Christmas Day, hundreds of dollars cheaper per ticket than a day or two on either side of December 25th.
We saved a thousand dollars on our three plane tickets for holiday travel by choosing the less desirable dates to fly. Want to know the day we flew back? New Year’s Day. Another less popular (and therefore cheaper) day to fly. If you are wondering are airports busy on Christmas Day? Yes they are, but not much busier than a typical non-holiday day. And a lot less busy than a few days before Christmas (that’s when I used to fly home to visit family).
4. Save money on holiday travel through Rakuten
Book your flights and any hotels and car rentals through Rakuten. Rakuten (which used to be called Ebates) gives you cash back on online purchases through their portal. For travel, there are so many different sites that give you discounts. When I searched, these are just some of the dozens that came up:
- Marriott Hotels
- Radisson Hotels
- Enterprise Rent a Car
- Days Inn
- Busch Gardens
- Super 8
- Thrifty Car Rental
- Holiday Inn
- Sandals All Inclusive Resorts
- Ramada Hotels
- Quality Inn
- Motel 6
- National Car Rental
- Planet Hollywood
The discounts you can get by booking these places through Rakuten seemed to average between 2% and 10%.
Here’s what this means in numbers:
If you spend $1000 on a hotel for a week for your family, and let’s say the cash back rate is 5% you would get $50 back. That’s $50 of free money you wouldn’t get if you booked directly through the hotel site.
5. Use a backpack as your carry-on
When traveling by air with kids, a backpack is SO useful to keep you hands-free. I thought this would be something I would just use when my daughter was a baby, but she’s 3 now and we’re still going strong with a backpack (I love this one) when we travel by plane.
For holding/chasing kids, eating food, and storage capacity, it’s definitely worth using a backpack as a carry-on. I usually don’t even bring a separate purse – I keep my wallet right in the backpack so I’m only carrying one thing.
6. Get a small backpack for each of your kids
Even young kids can carry a backpack in the airport. They can carry their own snacks and toys and games, leaving more space in your carry-on (for more snacks and toys and games, let’s be honest). This children’s backpack is crazy adorable and perfect for your little space travelers.
7. Bring a spare packable carry-on bag in your packed suitcase
This was my husband’s idea and SO helpful. We came bearing gifts, but like I said before, my mother is super festive and there was no way we could out-Christmas my mama. There was a lot more for us to bring back than we came with.
Since almost every airline now charges for every checked bag, we wanted to minimize how much we were paying. We did our best to pack as lightly as we could and managed to only need one checked suitcase between the three of us on the way there. We stuffed an empty large duffel bag into that checked suitcase, and used that on the way back for the Christmas gifts we received and some food we were bringing back.
8. Bring Santa’s stockings on the plane for kids to open when you’re flying on Christmas Day
This is incredibly helpful if you are planning on air travel on Christmas day (or really any kind of Christmas day travel). Our flight left mid-morning so we had enough time at home to have breakfast together and for Miss O to open a couple of Santa stocking gifts.
I packed the entire rest of her stocking in my backpack for her to open on the plane. This worked out SO well because unwrapping gave her something to do during the 2 ½ hour flight. The little gifts were all small Christmas-themed toys and books and provided entertainment for the rest of the flight.
9. Bring along a travel white noise machine when you travel for the holidays
I have sung the praises of this travel white noise machine before, and this love isn’t fading anytime soon. How did I ever sleep well without white noise? I bought my first white noise machine when Squish was born, to help her sleep in our you-can-hear-everything 820 SF house. And then I fell for the noise canceling wonderfulness that helped this light sleeper get restful night sleep.
For traveling with kids at holidays, a travel white noise machine (this is the one we have) is so helpful to drown out the Christmas revelers in hotels, or if they happen to be your family you are staying with. Better sleep makes happier kids the next day, which means a better vacation for all.
10. When you’re flying on Christmas Day, plan for the worst, but expect the best
As unappealing as flying on Christmas Day originally sounded, there ending up being a lot of positives of Christmas Day travel. Air travel on Christmas day was cheaper than other days near Christmas, people were in a GREAT mood (way more jovial than your usual day at the airport), and airports weren’t as busy on Christmas day as I expected. Overall I prefer holiday travel to be at holidays OTHER than Christmas, but with living away from my family this is something we will be doing once in a while. Just not every year 🙂
Related reading: How to Save Money on Travel – 6 Smart Hacks for Budget Travelers