Kurt Stahura, Ph.D. is Dean of the College of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Niagara University in upstate New York.
With the holidays upon us, it’s time to think about all the tasks on our to-do lists, from making travel arrangements to entertaining, preparing meals and shopping for gifts. If you just got that sinking feeling, keep reading. Here are some tips to help you get through the season as pleasurably as possible, without breaking the bank.
If you’re planning to fly between now and the new year, it would have been wise to book by Labor Day (remember this for next year), but you can still save if you act right away. Most major carriers and travel Web sites offer deals, though you can expect to pay more for each day you wait to purchase a ticket. If you do need a last- minute deal, consider departing on Thanksgiving Day or on Christmas Day and returning after the holiday weekend is over.
Once you have your tickets, be serious about allowing extra time to get to the airport and for boarding and security lines. Use phone apps to make the most of your time. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has an excellent app, MY TSA, which is updated regularly. With it, you can check your flight status or security wait time. TripIt and Gate Guru, perform similar functions and may be helpful, depending on your phone’s operating system.
If you get stuck in the terminal due to delays, you may be able to find a comfortable spot to wait with LoungeBuddy. Whether you are traveling economy or first class, the app (for Android and iOS) helps you find lounges in more than 500 airports worldwide.
And, remember to travel light. With fees for checked bags and more crowded baggage areas, sticking with only a carry-on may help. Keep in mind that fellow travelers may have the same idea and the overhead compartments may be cramped. But, using them will save time.
If you choose the train, with less hassle and more romance (especially with the recent release of “Murder on the Orient Express”) Amtrak anticipates 700,000 travelers over Thanksgiving weekend and almost as many at the end of the year. As with flying, it pays to get to the station early and to allow for lines at security checkpoints. Have your photo ID handy and, at busier stations like Penn Station (NYC) and Union Station (Washington, D.C), expect random security checks. The Amtrak app, AMTRAK, offers online booking, trip information, texts for departure and arrival times, and best of all, discounts for regular travelers.
Scoring discounted tickets on Amtrak for the holidays is not nearly as easy as purchasing plane tickets, due less competition. But, you can find Amtrak discounts by joining Amtrak Guest Rewards, a free loyalty program. Promotions come directly to your inbox and points are earned each time you travel. There is also a standard 14-day advance purchase discount providing 25% or more off the lowest available fares. (You must choose the Adult passenger type when booking to receive the discounted fare.)
There’s good news for most of us who will drive to our holiday destinations. Gas prices are expected to remain at or below their current levels through the end of 2017. You will certainly save money traveling by car, but there’s always the chance Mother Nature will work against you. The AAA estimates that some 42.2 million people will travel at least 50 miles over the four-day Thanksgiving holiday. If you’re driving, brace yourself for some serious traffic and the potential for extremely harsh weather in certain parts of the country. It’s important to plan your route ahead of time and to have a GPS system or a phone app like WAYZ. These offer traffic and real-time route information. Finally, E-ZPass will save you time at the toll booths – for those states that still have them! (In New York City, toll booths at most major bridges and tunnels have been removed, theoretically leading to quicker trips.)
If you’re entertaining and preparing holiday meals, getting an early start is not as crazy as it sounds. You can shop ahead of time for certain hard-shell vegetables like butternut squash, pumpkin and fruits like apples, if you’re baking pies. The same goes for the paper goods you’ll need, holiday table settings and canned goods or other packaged food like stuffing that comes in containers. None of these will spoil in a month. You can even get a bird (turkey, goose, etc.) or beef and pork early on to freeze. All the early shopping will save a bit of money because prices rise as the holidays approach. If you’re hosting a dinner party during December and an actual holiday meal, save time by shopping once for both occasions, except for the last-minute items that must be fresh – bread, soft vegetables, baked goods. Don’t hesitate to ask guests to bring a side dish or dessert. In many cases they’ll be happy to do so – to help you and to have a taste of their own traditions at your home.
Finally, the part of the holidays most of us dread – hitting the stores to shop for gifts. While many consumers are eager to find the best Black Friday deals because that’s what advertisers suggest, it may not be worth it to waste time fighting for a parking space and negotiating crowds. In fact, it’s wrong to assume that Black Friday and Cyber Monday will be the only opportunities for low prices.
Furthermore, too many shoppers are unaware of the fact that inflation continues to be low and prices are consistent from last year to this year, as they have been for the past few years. According to a Nerd Wallet analysis conducted in 2014, 93 percent of retailers advertised products for the exact same price for Black Friday2015 as they did for Black Friday 2014. For those shopping online, use apps and browser add-ons like Honey and Invisible Hand that automatically add coupons to your shopping cart and find the best deals for items you’re seeking.
These “special sale days” may be little more than advertising events. If consumers take the time to compare the prices of certain products before and after Black Friday, they’ll see there is no need to rush away from Thanksgiving dinner to get to a crowed store or spend Monday, the 27th, shopping online. Deals will come and go through Christmas.
The bottom line for enjoying the holidays, as you seek to provide happiness for everyone else? Plan early, use technology to help where it can, ask your family and friends to pitch in and remember to take time out to take pleasure in the preparation. Finally, enjoy the days spent with loved ones once you get to the finish line. In the end, it’s the togetherness that most of us remember.