Making a last-minute getaway in peak holiday season is not for the faint of heart. Prices are steep, train seats are scarce, and airports are chaotic as hordes of travellers scurry around to a soundtrack of piped-in Christmas music. But when my longing for sunshine outweighed my craving for Thanksgiving turkey and pies, I booked a quick four-day escape to Miami.
On my tightly packed airplane winging its way to South Beach, I had some time to ponder the joys and pitfalls of spontaneous holiday travel. Here's a short primer on how to travel gracefully over the holidays - whether it’s a last-minute package deal to Mexico or the standard trip home via train, bus, or three connecting flights.
Think outside the box
There are last-minute deals to be had. But when it comes to peak travel seasons, you have to be flexible about your destination. You’re less likely to stumble across a bargain-priced Christmas trip to Switzerland, for example: snowboarding in the Alps is generally enjoyed by people who make advance plans (or have plenty of expendable income). But if you’re open to a getaway to Costa Rica, New Orleans or the Irish countryside, you’ll discover a variety of last-minute options using the resources below.
Make the system work for you
The internet is rife with travel planning tools, but they’re not worth much if you don’t know how to set them up and tailor them to your preferences. If you’re interested in a vacation, log onto Travelzoo (www.travelzoo.com), where last-minute packages are listed by departure city. Catering to European travellers, Lastminute.com (www.lastminute.com) offers similar packages, but more popular destinations book out early. If you have time to spare, sign up for e-mail bulletins advertising deeply discounted travel packages, including Travelzoo’s Top 20 (www.travelzoo.com/top20). Then log on to Twitter and follow travel magazines and websites like Condé Nast Traveler (@CNTraveler) and Budget Travel (@BudgetTravel) - both offer frequently updated travel deals and promotions you won’t see elsewhere.
If you don’t have plane tickets yet but your holiday destination is set - if you’re expected for New Year’s Eve in Los Angeles or Christmas in London, for instance - enter Kayak (www.kayak.com) and set up a flight alert. This user-friendly tool automatically keeps you posted if the airfare on your desired route changes: if the fare suddenly drops $80, you can pounce on it. Of course, your chances of scoring a decently priced flight increase dramatically if you enter several different combinations of airports, dates and travel times. Another site to try is Hotwire (www.hotwire.com/deals), particularly the ‘Deals’ section, where a sidebar allows you to see the cheapest fares from your departure city for upcoming weekends.
Streamline your itinerary
It’s worth considering paying more for a non-stop flight over an itinerary with multiple connections. Why? Most airlines do not offer compensation or accommodation assistance if your flight is delayed or cancelled due to wintry weather. So if freezing rain is falling at your layover airport, you’re stuck - and you might end up spending your hard-earned cash on a dingy airport motel room. If you book a non-stop flight, the worst-case scenario is that you’re stuck at home or at your final destination. Another choice airport tip from Condé Nast’s travel expert Wendy Perrin: to avoid getting bumped from an overbooked holiday flight, make sure you get a seat assignment ahead of time (read more here).
Airports: do your homework
There’s no way around it. Moving through LaGuardia or Heathrow during the holiday rush just isn’t pleasant - the best you can do is pack light, arrive early (at least two hours ahead for domestic flights and three for international), maintain a Zen-like expression at the security line and indulge in a well-deserved cocktail at the bar by your departure gate. But if you do have any flexibility in your flight plans, opt for smaller travel hubs over major airports like Chicago O’Hare and Los Angeles International, identified by Orbitz as the two busiest airports in the US over the current Thanksgiving holiday.
Consider ground transportation
If you’re travelling last-minute, you’ll have better luck with bus and train tickets than airfares - and your trip is less likely to be cancelled due to weather. What, an eight-hour journey sounds excessive? Just remember how long the lines are at the airport.
Expect the unexpected, and leave some space in your budget accordingly. Even if you don’t have much cash to spare, be kind to yourself - when it’s snowing and there are one hundred people waiting in line for the public bus, $20 is a small price to pay for a taxi ride. When you’re facing an unexpected seven-hour delay at the airport, splash out and buy yourself a day pass to an airport lounge stocked with food and drinks, comfortable couches and wi-fi. Just consider it a holiday present to yourself.
For last-minute travel tips, hotel hacks and expert advice, snap up Lonely Planet's Best Ever Travel Tips.