Holiday travel usually requires swallowing hard and preparing to pay through the nose.
But it is possible to skirt the high prices around the Christmas and Hanukkah season, says Pierre-Etienne Chartier, vice-president of the Hotwire Group, which runs the San Francisco-based online travel discount website Hotwire.com.
Here are a few tips.
For those flying home for Christmas, an obvious strategy is to travel on Christmas Day itself or just immediately before or after. The highly coveted two or three days before the holiday is always bad for deals, yet reduced airfares can usually be found on Dec. 24, 25 and 26.
But here's an important catch: Don't follow the usual discount traveller's strategy of waiting until the last minute to book. That works well other times of the year, but because of the high-holiday demand, it doesn't at year's end. You should book at least 21 days in advance, Chartier advises. Hotels, however, tend to be a little better for bargains closer to the holiday.
Another tip is to shift the holiday altogether. If you don't really care when you celebrate, the weeks between the end of November and Christmas are ideal. "We call the season between American Thanksgiving and Christmas shoulder season, because everything is ramping down. Business travel is lowering, so demand across the board is lowering. So that's a good period, during the early weeks of December," Chartier says.
The best bet is to go in the opposite direction of everyone else. While Americans are travelling home around U.S. Thanksgiving, Canadians should go to sun destinations and vacation spots. "You will see some flights and destinations that are cheaper, and then you can be like a predator and see what are the deals popping up."
For example, Chartier notes that on Hotwire rooms at a five-star hotel in Las Vegas shortly after U.S. Thanksgiving are going for less than $100 a night. Within Canada, Vancouver has a number of deals, with one five-star hotel again offering rooms less than $100. (Hotwire.com lists a hotel's amenities and its general location in the city, but won't identify the name until you book a room through its website.)
But even discounted hotel prices are up this year compared with 2011. Empty hotel rooms listed on the site are, on average, four per cent higher this year. Car rentals are up the same amount. But airfares have lowered by three per cent, bucking their rising trend of the last few years.
These small differences matter when the economy is middling.
"Canadian travellers," Chartier says, "are more price sensitive. They will go for good discounts on higher-quality products."