Updated: May 16, 2023

5 Tips for Cheaper Holiday Travel

In a recession, the old maxim time is money seems to fall apart at the seams. When there is little money to be made, you have a surplus of idle time, and time ceases to be a fungible asset. It's ju...
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In a recession, the old maxim time is money seems to fall apart at the seams. When there is little money to be made, you have a surplus of idle time, and time ceases to be a fungible asset. It's just time. Whether this is liberating, or despair-inducing, or both, is neither here nor there.

But even for the completely unemployed, there are points at which your time does equal money, and that's the annual collective nightmare we euphemistically call holiday travel. Should the Almighty Lord choose not smite us with a Christmastime blizzard again this year, as he has over the last two years (mere mortal weathermen say no), you will be able to see your loved ones this holiday season, instead of spending it napping on your laptop case, fighting the urge to have dinner at Auntie Anne's for the sixth night in a row.

Planning ahead and controlling the factors that you can control are the keys to successful and cheap holiday travel. You've already shelled out hundreds of dollars for tickets and presents, and you could easily drop $200 more if you don't plan ahead — all you need is time.

Vox Efx/Flickr

1. Getting There: This is the biggest variable cost when traveling: the traveling you do before you can travel. Except for in strange exceptions like San Diego, a city's airport is typically large to the point that it has to lie well outside of city limits (or in far-flung corners of the city's suburban fringe, like JFK and LaGuardia here in New York). This, combined with the fact that you need to be there at least 90 minutes early, makes your time even more valuable still.

And that's central to the tip here: most major metropolitan cities have a public transit option for getting to the airport. The less likely it is that you or your friends have cars, the more likely it is that you live in a city with this option and it will be the cheapest option by far. Even in New York, it's only $7.25 to ride the subway and the AirTrain to JFK, and only $2.25 to ride the bus to LaGuardia. It would likely cost upwards of $90 to take a cab or Uber from Manhattan to either.

The same is likely true for wherever you land, though here you should hopefully have someone who loves you enough that they are willing to pick you up.

You could shave $90 off of your travel costs just by avoiding cabs. It just takes time.

2. Getting Your Things There: Holiday travel and holiday shopping have a way of becoming far more ruthlessly inconvenient than the sum of their parts. The effect can feel multiplicative, and as far as your wallet is concerned, it is. Don't want to schlep a bag full of presents on the subway? Take a cab. Now you have to check the bag for another $25, and you've just spent an extra unnecessary $75 as a tax for having bought presents.

So if we lump the cost of a cab with the cost of checking an extra bag, the case for shipping your gifts seems more attractive. Fed Ex will charge you about the same as a cab and airline baggage check fees, but the USPS charges flat rates for large boxes of about $15. That's $60 in your pocket right there.

Furthermore, with some travel credit cards — like American Express' Delta SkyMilescard and Chase's Continental OnePass card — you can check bags for free. This will help ameliorate costs, should you opt against shipping. Like public transit, shipping takes time.

3. Eating and Drinking: This is one of the lesser costs, but it's well worth considering, especially because you will probably want a drink upon getting through security, if only to erase the memories of having swinging X-ray blades taking pictures of your crotch to make sure you're not a terrorist, and to drown out any voices in the back of your head that wonder whether someone on your flight has turned something seemingly innocuous into an explosive device. It's totally possible! Remember Christmas 2009?

But don't think about that. Think about how the practice of making bombs out of seemingly innocuous things means you can't bring a water bottle (or something a bit stronger) on a flight anymore.

This has likely been a boon for the terminal bar, but don't go there! We know how inviting a terminal TGI Friday's can look when your other option is sitting in a terminal, but that doesn't mean it's a good choice. When a business has a captive audience, they have little incentive to be competitive quality- or price-wise.

Bring a sandwich from home, and wait to get on the plane to have a drink. Beers are not that expensive on planes — no more expensive than at a terminal bar — and you won't be expected to tip your stewardess.

4. TSA 3-1-1: And getting back to the TSA issue, be sure you didn't accidentally pack your toothpaste or shampoo in your carry-on instead of your checked bags. Or, bring it in containers under 3.4 fluid ounces, and pack it in a quart-sized, clear ziploc baggie. It you bring anything bigger, you're going to have to toss it in the TSA's bin, and you'll never see it again.

The beauty industry has responded well to the new regulation, making lots of 3.4 and 3.3 ounce containers of their products. Buy these in advance and you'll save in the long run. You probably already know this, but it's worth rehashing.

5. Distractions: Hudson News is the biggest hustler in the airport. They know that five or six hours of pressurized, recycled air boredom is unimaginable for someone in 2021. I won't board a plane without at least four possible diversions: reading material, candy, iPod, and massive sleep deprivation. I alternate between reading, falling asleep, waking up and eating candy while listening to music, and then hopefully falling back asleep. Traveling from New York to California in this fashion is as close as I will ever come to time travel. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

But an issue of Harper's and a bag of gummies at Hudson News will likely run you $11. You can subscribe to the magazine for a year for $16. Buy the subscription and a bag of candy from the drugstore well in advance and you'll be set.

But don't avoid Hudson News entirely; where else are you going to have time to flip through Tucker Max or Glenn Beck's latest "book", knowing that no one can judge you? Treating Hudson News like a terrible library is a time-honored way of passing the time at your gate.