Shutterstock/Anna Om

[Rick Seaney is the CEO and cofounder 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.]

 

If you’re trying to come up with a unique holiday gift for a loved one, how about a picture of the two of you Photoshopped into a gondola? Then, take ‘em to Venice! There’s nothing like the gift of travel – the memories really do last a lifetime – and it can be done on budget.

1. First, do the grunt work for free.

Don’t ever simply hand someone a ticket and say, "Surprise – here’s a trip – enjoy!" If they don’t like the destination or can’t travel on the ticketed dates, the gift is useless. Even if it’s simply a matter of changing dates, most airlines will still charge a change fee of up to $200.

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 travel agent and put it all together. Don’t worry, it’s not hard.

2. Nail down city and travel period.

As travel agent, you can start looking at prices right now to see what’s cheap from your recipient’s departure city. There are a variety of tools out there that offer destination prices by month or season including one on my site. See what you come up with. Suggestion: If you want the cheapest fare possible, winter is a great time to travel. Here is a sampling of fares found this week for travel in January; all prices are round-trip.

  • Boston to Cancun, $266
  • Chicago to Miami, $69
  • Dallas to Los Angeles, $83
  • Denver to Havana, $193
  • New York to Oslo, $278

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). Much of this has to do with all the low-cost airlines in these cities. Frontier is based in Denver while Boston is a focus city for JetBlue and both are stops for ultra-discounter Spirit. Other "generally cheap" destinations can vary year-by-year. Lately, we’ve seen lots of deals to/from Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, along with Dublin and Scandinavian cities. The deal-finding tool mentioned above will help you find the best ones from your city.

3. 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, and deal zones are especially cheap times to fly because most of us don’t want to fly then. And as demand drops, so do prices. Check out these round-trip fares to Paris for travel in January:

  • From Chicago, $380
  • From Los Angeles, $340
  • From New York, $332

Some of the best deals to Paris and elsewhere can be found on European discounters such as Wow Air, Norwegian Air and Icelandair, but always compare prices when shopping because sometimes the big American carriers have the cheapest prices. You never know.  For more, see These Travel Days Get You the Cheapest Flights.

4. Look for package deals.

Some airlines routinely offer flight + hotel package deals for traditional resort destinations like Hawaii and Las Vegas. Find them by seeing which airlines fly to your destination – get the information by visiting an airfare comparison site and making a 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 (such as Yelp or any one of about a million others) to see if the hotel meets your standards.
  • Next, see if the airline breaks down the package so you know that the flight is X amount of dollars and the hotel costs Y.

If you can determine the individual costs, do a separate airfare and hotel search to see if you can find a better deal. If you find one, skip the airline package in favor of a do-it-yourself deal. Tip: Hotels are usually better deals when airlines are, such as winter and fall (excluding major holidays).

5. Buy the gift.

Many airlines sell traditional plastic gift cards in varying denominations; you may also be able to get electronic vouchers. Find these gifts on the airlines’ websites, though we’ve also seen Southwest cards advertised by Amazon and Walmart.

Here’s an even better idea: Slip a note from you inside another gift – maybe  a brand new carry-on bag – with the note proclaiming that the two of you will be taking a trip together and you should get to work on it right away.

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. And have a wonderful trip.

 

 

Want to learn how to invest?

Get a free 10 week email series that will teach you how to start investing.

Delivered twice a week, straight to your inbox.