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Traveling home for the holidays is often bittersweet. We look forward to seeing family and friends, but often wish we could teleport to our destination instead of struggling through crowded airports, long lines, and foul weather. To make matters worse, more people are expected to travel this year than last, making fares more expensive and seats more valuable. Nevertheless, with a little research, planning, and patience, you can find the best deal for your particular destination.
Shoestring has asked travel experts across the nation to reveal their best tips and tricks for finding great fares on planes, trains, and automobiles. Don't cling to unrealistic expectations — super cheap steals may be a figment of the imagination — and if all else fails, ask Santa.
It's a universal travel rule: fares tend to go up as you get closer to the holidays, so don't be afraid to take the plunge now. If you're worried about finding a better rate in the future, check a price prediction site like Bing Travel or book on a carrier that will refund the price difference. jetBlue refunds any fare decreases as future travel credits.
Track flights a week before you purchase.
Start checking prices on airline sites and flight consolidators like Hotwire, Kayak, and Orbitz. "Compare prices in advance so you'll be able to identify a good fare when it comes up, or act fast if fares start rising," says Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com.
Take excess fees into account.
When comparing fares, keep in mind additional baggage, pet, or booking fees. Some flight consolidators charge extra fees, so make sure you compare fares on airline sites before booking, says jetBlue spokesperson Bryan Baldwin. Also, evaluate what each airline charges for baggage fees especially if you're traveling with excess luggage. Check out SmarterTravel's Ultimate Guide to Airline Fees to keep up with the latest hidden costs.
Tweet your way to great fares.
Use social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to find exclusive discount codes and sale prices direct from travel companies. United Airlines uses its Twitter feed (@UnitedAirlines) to publish "Twares" — special tweets alerting followers to cheap fares to various destinations that expire quickly — while jetBlue's @jetBlueCheeps feed features last-minute deals prefect for procrastinators. "If you'd like a flight to Vegas and want to know the best deals out there, do a Twitter search on Las Vegas Flight Deals and see what pops up in real time," says Kim Mance, editor-in-chief of GoGalavanting.com.
Membership has its privileges.
Make sure you're receiving email updates for members from all of your frequent flyer programs. "You'll receive more notifications of sales, and get a head start to buy before all the discount rates are gone," says Baldwin of jetBlue.
Try the buddy system.
If you're traveling with a friend, look into companion fares. Trains often offer discounts if you’re traveling in pairs. Check Amtrak's advertised specials under the Deals button to get the latest companion discounts as well as other fare offers. Right now you'll find companion discounts for travel in Missouri, Maine and on the Lake Shore Limited that serves New York, Chicago and Boston.
Reserve your seat.
Book online to get the best rates and try and reserve seats or sleeping accommodations in advance for longer and overnight routes, says Vernae Graham, a spokesperson for Amtrak. Don't wait until the last minute, since seats fill up quickly over the holidays you may risk ending up stranded at the station.
Register for rewards and use memberships.
Amtrak Guest Rewards offers member discounts and special deals throughout the year, says Graham. Leverage your memberships like AAA to get discount rates, and ask your employer whether you can take advantage of any corporate rates.
Student rates aren't just for students.
Students of any age, anyone under the age of 26, and full-time teachers can all take advantage of Student Travel Agency (STA) discounts. The organization offers an additional 15 percent discount off the lowest Amtrak fare you can find.
Compare and benchmark.
"In a SmarterTravel test, online travel agencies and the car rental sites had similar prices, so it's important to check both, plus sites like Hotwire and Priceline to find the best deal," says Banas. Also, many credit cards companies offer discount codes for major rental agencies to their cardholders, so call first before booking online.
Think green and lean.
Don't just automatically choose the cheapest ride; consider distance and gas consumption before making your final decision. If you're traveling a few hundred miles, look into renting a hybrid, which might save you money in the long run.
Learn the 250 mile rule.
Struggling to decide if you should fly or drive? Keep in mind that it's often cheaper to drive shorter distances. "I've found that 250 miles seems to be the magic number," says Bill Miller, senior vice president of CheapOair. "Anything inside of 250 miles makes more sense to drive when you factor in airfare, car rental, and the time it takes to get to the airport and get through security."
Share a ride.
Reach out to your circle of friends to see if they know of anyone heading home for the holidays in your direction, and offer to carpool. You can split rental and gas expenses, not to mention driving duties. "The safest way to hitch a ride is to network through people you know," says Banas of SmarterTravel. Several reputable websites do exist, however, for people in search of a random carpool opportunity, such as GoLoco, eRideShare, and RideBuzz.
Try different bus routes.
"Sometimes the default route isn't the cheapest, and you can search for alternate connecting cities," says Mance of Galavanting. Try BusJunction, for instance, to search options from various bus lines simultaneously.
Copyright 2009 Shoestring, LLC. Photo: iStock