Can't figure out what to give someone for the holidays? How about the gift of travel? The memories last a lifetime, and it can be done without breaking the bank.
It's best not to hand over a ticket and say, "Surprise! Here’s a trip. Enjoy!" Suppose they don’t like the destination or can’t travel on the ticketed dates; the gift is useless. Even if it's a simple matter of changing dates, most airlines will still charge a change fee of up to $200 for domestic flights and $750 for international.
The smart way to give a trip is the no-surprise method where you and the recipient collaborate on where to go and when; then, you act as the travel agent by putting it all together. Don’t worry, it’s not hard.
Nail Down the City and Travel Period
Upon acceptance, begin reviewing fares as soon as possible; oftentimes, the least expensive rates are afforded to early shoppers. There are a variety of tools that offer destination prices by month or season. For the least expensive fares, winter is a great time to travel. Here is a sample of what round-trip airfares were for December 2019:
- Boston to Cancun, $285
- Chicago to Miami, $110
- Dallas to Los Angeles, $267
- Denver to Jamaica, $400
- New York to Prague, $674
Over the past few years, we’ve noticed relatively good fares to cities like Boston and Denver year-round (yes, even for skiers in winter). This is mostly attributed to the presence of low-cost airlines in those cities. Frontier is based in Denver while Boston is a focus city for JetBlue; both are stops for ultra-discounter Spirit. Other "generally cheap" destinations can vary annually. Increasingly, we are finding deals to/from Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, along with Dublin and Scandinavian cities. Deal-finding tools will also help you find the best ones from your city.
Learn the Best Times to Travel
You want to give a trip to a legendary global city but don’t want to go broke? Again, travel in winter. The first big deal zone of the year arrives around January 7; deal zones are inexpensive because most people do not wish to travel during those times. To stimulate demand, prices are lowered. Check out what these round-trip airfares to Paris are for January/February 2021:
- From Chicago, $456
- From Los Angeles, $629
- From New York, $283
Some of the best deals to Paris and elsewhere are with European discounters, such as Wow Air, Norwegian Air, and Icelandair; however, it is advisable to compare prices when shopping because the big American carriers sometimes have the least expensive prices. (For related insight, read about which travel days get you the cheapest flights.)
Look for Package Deals
Some airlines routinely offer flight plus hotel package deals for traditional resort destinations like Hawaii and Las Vegas. Find them by verifying which airlines fly to your destination; visit an airfare comparison site and make note of all the airlines that go there. Then, follow these airlines on social media or sign up for their newsletters to learn about package deals and other specials. If you see a package you like, do two things before buying:
- Check with your favorite customer-feedback site (e.g., Yelp) to see if the hotel meets your standards.
- Next, see if the airline breaks down the package so you know that the flight costs and what the hotel costs.
If you can determine the individual costs, do a separate airfare and hotel search to see if you can find a better deal. If this search results in a better deal, skip the airline package in favor of a do-it-yourself deal. Hotels rates are usually inexpensive during low travel periods, as well.
Buy the Gift
Many airlines sell gift cards in varying denominations; you may also be able to get electronic vouchers. You can find these gifts on the airlines’ websites, though you'll also see Southwest cards advertised by Amazon and Walmart.
Here’s an even better idea: write a note and include it inside of another gift, such as a brand new carry-on bag. The note can proclaim that you and the recipient will take a trip together and that plans should be arranged immediately.
When it comes time for you to pay, use an airline-branded credit card (if flying that carrier) or any card that will give your miles or points just for making the purchase. Lastly and most importantly, have a wonderful trip!
Note: Rick Seaney is the CEO and co-founder of FareCompare and columnist for Investopedia. The views expressed by columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Investopedia.