5 Hacks for Booking Last-Minute Holiday Travel

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  • Flexibility is key for last-minute travel. Be flexible about when you travel; mid-week flights early in the day may be easier to find and more affordable.
  • If your home airport doesn't have good flight options, consider traveling to a nearby airport with better availability.
  • Transferable credit card rewards are best for last-minute travel since you have the flexibility to use them with multiple airlines. Check airline alliances to see if you can get cheaper award flights through a partner airline.

Pack your patience.

Airports have been extra busy all year long, and the holiday season is only making it worse. Booking holiday travel can be tough at the best of times, but booking holiday travel at the last minute, well, that's not usually the best of times. However, needs must.

The key to booking last-minute travel is to be as flexible as possible. You may not be able to travel on the ideal day, at the ideal time -- or even out of the ideal airport. Here are a few tips for tackling your last-minute travel plans.

1. Travel during off-peak times

If you have the option, travel early in the morning in the middle of the week. From both a time and date perspective, this is when airport traffic tends to be the least congested. You'll spend way less time in airport lines, and your plane may even be less crowded.

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Yes, I know, the idea of getting up at 4 a.m. for your flight sounds terrible. But everyone else thinks so, too. Similarly, folks who are working up until the last minute or who have kids finishing out the school term tend to travel on the weekend. Flying on Tuesday and Wednesday will often be cheaper, and you'll likely find more open flights if you're booking late.

2. Take advantage of airline alliances

This one applies primarily to those trying to book trips with points and miles. Most airlines are part of larger airline alliances. This means you can often book flights with one airline through another airline's website -- and by using their rewards currency. 

For example, you could potentially book a United flight using Aeroplan miles at a better rate than using United miles. Similarly, you might be able to book a Delta flight with Virgin Atlantic miles.

These types of workarounds will work best for folks who have a good stash of transferable travel rewards from one of these rewards programs:

Transferable points from many travel rewards cards can be turned into frequent flyer miles for any of the program's partner airlines. This gives you the most flexibility in whose miles you use to book your flight. Most points transfers are nearly instantaneous, but some may take up to a day, so make sure to plan for the transfer time if it applies.

3. Pack light -- ultralight

The last year has been rife with horror stories about hours-long waits for luggage in over-packed airports. You can avoid all of that if you simplify your luggage to avoid checking any baggage.

Or, take it a step further and eliminate everything except one personal item (the bag that goes under the seat in front of you). If you're only traveling for a few days, a small- to medium-sized backpack can potentially fit everything you'll need. 

In addition to skipping the chaos at baggage claim, taking only a personal item really opens up your options for booking travel. You won't need to worry about what boarding group you're in if you're not worried about finding space in the overhead bin. You can also travel one of the discount airlines if you want, since you won't need to worry about paying for any carry-on bags (most allow a single personal item at no charge). 

And don't forget the connecting-flight-dash. Those 30-minute layovers are doom for folks with lots of luggage. But you with your personal item can hop off the plane, casually weave through airport traffic, and get to your connecting flight without a spare thought for the already-crowded overhead bins. Magic.

4. Be open to other airports

Depending on where you live, you likely have multiple airport options within a reasonable distance (though what counts as "reasonable" will vary for everyone). We have a small airport in my city that only has two airlines and a dozen flights a day. But if I'm willing to drive an hour away, I can access a much larger airport with 10 times the daily flights.

You may also need (or want) to consider leaving and coming back via different airports. Maybe your local airport has the best flight to your destination, but one an hour away has a better return flight. If the math works out, it could be worth a little extra travel on either end.

Of course, don't forget the cost of that extra travel when crunching the numbers. If you're leaving and coming back via the same airport, it's often cheapest to drive your own car and pay for airport parking. But if using two different airports, you may need to rent a car, take a bus, or hop on a commuter train.

5. Consider splurging on an upgrade

Folks traveling solo or with a partner, one of the best tricks of all may be to simply splurge on first class. Many of the worries we've discussed, like overhead baggage space and obscenely long security lines, could be helped by an upgraded fare.

For one thing, first class tends to board early. They also usually have dedicated overhead space. In some airports, with some airlines, a first-class fare may also qualify you for dedicated check-in or security lines that can cut your wait at the airport. And while planes typically have fewer first-class seats on any given aircraft, they may not sell as fast as more affordable fares in the economy classes. 

If you can build in flexibility and maybe splurge to upgrade your travel, you may find that this year's holiday trip is less stressful than you may be fearing, even if you have to book last minute. 

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