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How to save on ‘premium’ priced flights, accommodation this holiday season

The winter holidays can be an expensive time to travel for many Canadians, but with some planning it’s possible not to break the bank during an already expensive season, frequent travellers say.

“If you can keep your cost of accommodation and transportation low, everything else is gravy,” said Nora Dunn, a full-time traveller for about 12 years who shares her expertise on her blog, The Professional Hobo.

“Unfortunately … travel around the holiday times tends to come at a premium,” she said.

Transportation costs surge over peak travel times, like the days before and after Christmas. A scan of airline prices for routes between major Canadian cities shows hefty hikes the Friday and Saturday before Christmas compared to the same days the previous week.

For relatively close distances, driving or taking the train can be less expensive, though it may eat into more vacation time. But for those who must fly, it’s worth checking any rewards points balances and whether the program offers redeemable flights during holidays, said Barry Choi, a personal finance blogger who focuses on travel.

If the balance is low or dates are blacked out, he reminds travellers that budget airlines Swoop and Flair have recently launched in Canada. While they sometimes fly to cities close to major international airports, such as Hamilton rather than Toronto, they can offer a lower fare.

However, travellers should check how much extras such as a carry-on or checked bag will cost them before booking, he said, as that may close the gap between a budget and standard airline fare.

Dunn recommends using websites or apps, like Hopper, to track prices and decide on the best time to buy. Users can input their desired route and travel dates into Hopper up to a year in advance, and the app sends a notification when it expects the cheapest fare is on offer.

Booking early is the best way to save money, said Stephen Weyman, who founded and a credit card comparison site. For those still waiting to book for this holiday season, he recommends they do so soon.

“I wouldn’t wait any longer. You should book right away,” he said.

Last year, the least expensive domestic round-trip prices were advertised until about the middle of October, according to Hopper’s data, when fares averaged roughly $652.

Fares started to rise about a dollar a day 15 to 25 days before departure, and $7 a day in the final two weeks, according to Hopper.

Flexible travel dates outside of the days just around the holidays can help keep costs low, said Weyman.

The cheapest days to fly are Dec. 18 with a New Year’s Eve return, the company said. The second least expensive departure dates are Christmas eve or Dec. 19.

The best day of the week to book an international or domestic flight departing from Canada is Sunday, according to Expedia, while the most expensive day to do so is Friday.

The other big budget item is accommodations, though hopefully most people travelling to spend time with family over the holidays will be able to stay with their relatives.

“That’s the no. 1 tip, right? Stay with family,” said Weyman.

For those who run up against a full house or want their own space, there are still good hotel options, he said, pointing to websites like Hotwire that offer savings for people willing to book a hotel only knowing where it’s located, its rating and some other pertinent information — but not the name.

Expedia data shows it’s almost 25 per cent less expensive for Canadians to book a hotel for the holidays with zero to six days left before departure.

Home rental sites, like Airbnb, can be cheaper, especially if a large group splits the cost, said Weyman. If the rental has a kitchen, people can also save money on eating out by cooking more for themselves.

Dunn suggests getting a bit creative and thinking beyond just hotels.

The self-professed expert at finding free alternatives recommends seeking out house-sitting opportunities, couch surfing options or home exchanges. Several websites exists to facilitate these transactions.


Follow @AleksSagan on Twitter

Aleksandra Sagan, The Canadian Press

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