The little-known secrets of cheap holiday travel--without airplanes

hammockAirlines are the squeaky wheel of the travel industry, and they get a lot of grease in the media, so by now we all know how to navigate ticket buying. But baggage fees are on the rise and airfares are an uncertain game of roulette, so many of us are choosing to go to Grandmother's house by land instead. Going over the river and through the woods isn't such a bad way to do it, either, because there are some sterling savings opportunities if you go by wheel instead of wing, as MainStreet.com points out in an article today.

Here's my take on some of Lyneka Little's suggestions:

ONLINE DISCOUNTS: Some suggestions are obvious to those of us who have been using a computer for more than a few months. Those include always checking the websites of your chosen carrier (Amtrak, Greyhound, and so on) to see if its online prices beat the ticket office. Don't stampede straight to the reservations search boxes, either, because most sites have a marked page of specials that shouldn't be ignored.

MEMBERSHIP PRIVILEGES:
Make sure you milk every discount you can. I know plenty of people in their early 50s who squirm at their AARP eligibility, but when they realize that they can use that status to save some bucks, suddenly the card is waved with pride. Even young whippersnappers might have AAA membership, and that can bring some surprising deals (although it's a motoring organization, Amtrak will cut rates for it). Check your local AAA branch for a list of discount opportunities. Often, these price cuts will work even during the holiday rush, including at hotels.

Holiday Travel = Waiting?

    **FILE** In this Feb. 10, 2006 file photo, tourists relax enjoying the sunset on a beach in the Caribbean city of Cartagena, Colombia. Several carriers have said that advance bookings for the 2008-2009 holiday season, show their planes are expected to be as full as or fuller than a year ago in part because they have taken so many seats out of the air. (AP Photo/Ricardo Maldonado, file)

    AP

    PHILADELPHIA - OCTOBER 16: Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and his wife Cindy McCain are joined by campaign staff while transfering from his airplane to a helicopter at the Philadelphia International Airport October 16, 2008 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Due to airport delays in Newark, McCain had to take a helicopter to Manhattan so to make it to his appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** John McCain;Cindy McCain

    Getty Images

    PHILADELPHIA - OCTOBER 16: Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and his wife Cindy McCain are joined by campaign staff while transfering from his airplane to a helicopter at the Philadelphia International Airport October 16, 2008 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Due to airport delays in Newark, McCain had to take a helicopter to Manhattan so to make it to his appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** John McCain;Cindy McCain

    Getty Images

    A special opera performance is staged in Xian, northern China's Shaanxi province on September 30, 2008 to celebrate China's National Day which falls on October 1. Millions of Chinese are spending their week-long October 1 National Day holidays travelling to various tourist spots and attractions throughout the country. CHINA OUT GETTY OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

    AFP/Getty Images

    A special opera performance is staged in Xian, northern China's Shaanxi province on September 30, 2008 to celebrate China's National Day which falls on October 1. Millions of Chinese are spending their week-long October 1 National Day holidays travelling to various tourist spots and attractions throughout the country. CHINA OUT GETTY OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

    AFP/Getty Images

    A special opera performance is staged in Xian, northern China's Shaanxi province on September 30, 2008 to celebrate China's National Day which falls on October 1. Millions of Chinese are spending their week-long October 1 National Day holidays travelling to various tourist spots and attractions throughout the country. CHINA OUT GETTY OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

    AFP/Getty Images

    A special opera performance is staged in Xian, northern China's Shaanxi province on September 30, 2008 to celebrate China's National Day which falls on October 1. Millions of Chinese are spending their week-long October 1 National Day holidays travelling to various tourist spots and attractions throughout the country. CHINA OUT GETTY OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

    AFP/Getty Images

    A special opera performance is staged in Xian, northern China's Shaanxi province on September 30, 2008 to celebrate China's National Day which falls on October 1. Millions of Chinese are spending their week-long October 1 National Day holidays travelling to various tourist spots and attractions throughout the country. CHINA OUT GETTY OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

    AFP/Getty Images

    Visitors admire the miniature figurines on display at an art exhibition in Xian, northern China's Shaanxi province on September 30, 2008. Millions of Chinese are spending their week-long October 1 National Day holidays travelling to various tourist spots and attractions throughout the country. CHINA OUT GETTY OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

    AFP/Getty Images

    A Chinese visitor admires the miniature figurines on display at an art exhibition in Xian, northern China's Shaanxi province on September 30, 2008. Millions of Chinese are spending their week-long October 1 National Day holidays travelling to various tourist spots and attractions throughout the country. CHINA OUT GETTY OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

    AFP/Getty Images




THINK ABOUT IT: By using Amtrak's phone reservations line (800-872-7245), you can actually put a hold on a quoted fare and take some time to compare prices elsewhere. After years of dealing with buy-now-or-cry-later pop-up deals from the airlines, keeping your trigger finger off the "buy now" button can take a little self-control.

CHEAP BUS BRANDS: Forget Greyhound for a minute. I'm always surprised at how few people are aware of the various dirt-cheap bus services connecting some of America's biggest cities. Those include Bolt Bus, Megabus, and Washington Deluxe. That's partly because these lines mainly do business in the megalopolis of the Northeast and in the Midwest (service in California stuttered and folded this year). Fares between Chicago and Kansas City can fall well under $40, beating the air carriers by a country mile, if purchased far in advance, Boston to New York can cost $1 to $6. Airfares have gone sky-high, as they always do for the holidays, but even today, just a few weeks ahead of time, you can still get a bus ticket between those two cities on the day before Thanksgiving for $19.

Some cities may have their own boutique shuttle brands, which usually begin and end in Chinatowns or in student enclaves. For New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and Boston, try Chinatown Bus, Fung Wah, and GotoBus (which maintains service in California and Nevada). Fares on those usually hover around $12 in the Northeast, an astounding rate that doesn't seem possible. Many of these lines have on-board amenities like wireless internet (no promises that the connection speed will climb as high as the driver's, though).

BOOK EARLY: Like, today. The longer you wait, the more prices go up. That's the pricing model for almost every major travel seller these days, whether in the air, on the ground, or in the sea. As room for passengers diminishes on a certain departure, the rate will escalate. This knowledge leads you to another tried-and-true principle for saving money on holiday travel: Try to go on days with lighter traffic. That means avoiding the start and end of a weekend and steering clear of the days that bookend a big holiday such as Thanksgiving. Greyhound, for its part, will even cut rates by 20% if you by at least a week ahead of travel.

Last-minute bargains may abound the rest of the year, but don't hope for many around the holidays. They just don't come up much. Buy now or pay later. That means now.

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