2016 holiday travel guide: When to drive, how to book and where to save

Thanksgiving is only a couple weeks away. Do you really want to wait until the last minute to plan your holiday travel? Not this year.

You don’t need me to tell you that the airports and roads will be busier than ever, or that travel somehow feels different from last year. (You’d be right on both counts.) But what does it take to save time and money, and not lose your mind? To answer those questions, I turned to the experts.

Most holiday travel takes place by car. During the long Thanksgiving weekend in 2015, almost 42 million Americans hit the road, but just 3.6 million people flew, according to AAA. Gas prices are predicted to fall to an average of $2.13 in November, according to the site GasBuddy.com. That’s the lowest level since March. If you can wait a few weeks, you’ll save even more. A gallon of unleaded fuel will average just $2.01 in December. In other words, the roads will be crowded, but getting to your destination is cheap.

Here’s some useful advice from Waze, a community-based traffic and navigation app. It crunched the holiday traffic data and found that the best time to leave for your trip is Thanksgiving morning. If you start your drive before noon, you’ll avoid most traffic. The day before that is the worst, with increased usage from late morning until the end of the day. Waze also found a 33 percent increase in accident alerts, a 26 percent increase in hazard alerts and a 20 percent increase in traffic jam alerts on that day. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving is good, however, as long as you leave early. Best day to drive back? Monday. Get an early start. Avoid Sunday.

If you plan to fly in December, this is the ideal time to book a ticket. The best fares for larger airports can be found about six weeks before your departure date, according to data from Hipmunk, an online travel site. You’ll average a 14 percent discount over this year’s costliest holiday tickets. If you’re bound for a smaller airport, however, the lowest fares are available about two months out. If you missed the cutoff, great deals can still be found in the two weeks before Thanksgiving. Set a fare alert on your favorite travel site to make sure you stay on top of things.

Another travel site, Skyscanner.com, suggests you might want to spend part of your Thanksgiving week shopping for Christmas airfares. Historical data indicates you’ll save about 6 percent off your airfare. If you miss sales, don’t worry. The week of Dec. 5 will offer a 5 percent savings. That’s also the ideal time to book for the New Year’s holiday, with savings of almost 7 percent.

If you’re planning to stay at a hotel, prepare for sticker shock. Rates are up about 5 percent this year and they’re projected to go even higher in 2017 (up from 3 percent to 5 percent in North America, according to projections by the research firm Advito). Hotel prices rise and fall with demand, although they’re typically less volatile than airfares. If you want to save money, this might be the year to stay with relatives or try a vacation rental.

Contrarian booking behavior might help you find affordable accommodations. For example, start-up site Sonder.com offers a cross between a short-term rental and hotel. Sonder’s “hometels,” which pass a rigorous inspection before joining its collection, are aimed at business travelers, who don’t do a lot of holiday travel. That could translate into a money-saving opportunity for holiday travelers.

What to expect out there? Two big issues will define the holiday travel season: Zika and terrorism. The spreading Zika virus could create softer demand for warm-weather destinations like the Caribbean and Florida, experts say. But if you’re not pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant, then these destinations could also offer an opportunity to save money. The only exception is Hawaii, which is currently Zika-free. “I anticipate Hawaii becoming very expensive as people seek an alternate warm destination without Zika,” says Clem Bason, chief executive of Goseek.com, a hotel website.

Overall, safety worries will exert the biggest influence on holiday travel, according to several experts I interviewed. As Jim Hutton, the chief security officer at travel risk management company On Call International explains, one significant point will make the 2016 holiday travel season different: increased security.

“The airport attacks in Brussels and Istanbul have already had an impact at airports and major transit stations,” he says. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if security at these locations — as well as destinations where religious or seasonal cultural events are held — are taken up a notch during the holiday travel season.”

The threat of terrorism may affect holiday travel to some destinations, particularly in Europe. With the dollar and euro hovering near parity and continued uncertainty, already low prices could fall even further, observers say. In Paris, the weeks before Christmas and New Year’s are normally a slow time for tourism, but this year, they’ll probably be slower and more affordable than they’ve been in years. “No need to worry about having advance tickets to the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre or reservations for many great restaurants,” says Gary Lee Kraut, a Paris-based editor who publishes the website France Revisited.

No matter how you’re traveling, chances are, you’ll feel the effects of a world that’s on edge. You can avoid the crowds and dodge the high prices, but the only way to cope with the security jitters is to take a deep breath, pack your patience and hope for the best.

Happy holidays!

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