Traveling this holiday? Here's where people are headed and how they're paying for it

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Whether heading home to visit family and friends or just fleeing to vacation hot spots, many Americans are planning to pack their bags for the coming winter holidays.

Here's a look at how many of us will hit the road and how much we'll spend.

Forty-five percent of Americans, some 114 million adults, expect to spend cash on flights and/or hotels over the holidays, shelling out an average $1,393 in total, Nerdwallet found. That adds up to about $159 billion in spending nationwide, according to the personal finance website and The Harris Poll, which recently teamed to survey more than 2,000 Americans.

That's good news for sellers of travel, but what about for the travelers themselves? Well, in addition to holiday memories, many will be left with some debt, too. Of those Americans taking a trip over the holidays, 81.2 million (some 71% of travel spenders) plan to put those expenses on a credit card, charging an average $1,105.

That's down from about $1,400 in 2018, a dip Kimberly Palmer, personal finance expert at Nerdwallet, said is attributable to consumer skittishness. "In a related study on holiday spending, we asked specifically about feeling about the economy, and we found a significant portion of Americans are concerned about it and may be scaling back spending as a result."

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Regardless of how much they're actually spending, "Americans are saying it will take them about 2½ months to pay off those balances," said Palmer. "That means they'll still be paying off their [charges] into 2020."

Or longer. Palmer cautioned that, for some, the 2½-month timeframe might be wishful thinking. "Some people underestimate because they don't realize the expenses coming up," she said. "We asked about last year's holiday travel expenses, and 1 in 12 said they're still in debt" from those expenditures.

It's never a good idea to charge any expense you can't pay off as soon as your bill comes due, yet many travelers do have their reasons for using credit cards. First, many who can pay in cash up front are being strategic by using cards, racking up loyalty points and miles for travel expenses they have to make anyway. "We found about one-third of consumers are also leveraging points and miles they earn to cover travel expenses, too," said Palmer.

Second, those travelers don't have enough saved up to pay in cash or pay off credit bills in one month have likely decided holiday travel is important enough to them that they'll absorb the extra costs associated with carrying a balance. That could be because holiday travel often means family travel: trips to see far-off relatives, often with kids in tow, or a long-promised family vacation.

In fact, Nerdwallet found that more than 7 in 10 Americans  who plan to spend money on holiday journeys will travel with their significant other and/or children. Those travelers say they'll book an average 3.4 roundtrip airfares and 5.1 hotel nights; according to Nerdwallet's analysis, that will cost them an estimated $1,633 to $1,916.

On the upside, 9 out of 10 Americans who will book flights and hotels are saving at least some money toward the expense, the survey found. And many are being proactive about saving in other ways: choosing price over convenience with flights (39%), ditching amenities for discounts at hotels (38%), staying with family or friends (29%) or using credit card points or miles (32%.)

"They'll willing to take that super-early flight, or connecting one, or drive to a different airport," said Palmer. "They're choosing flights that cost less even if they're less convenient."

Matt Schulz, chief industry analyst at CompareCards.com, said that flexibility when planning travel is key, especially around the holidays. "The day you travel, where you travel, the time you travel all matter," he said. "It really is all about planning in advance and thinking ahead and asking yourself how far you're willing to go to get the best price and potentially avoid some delays."

We found about one-third of consumers are also leveraging points and miles they earn to cover travel expenses.

Kimberly Palmer

personal finance expert at Nerdwallet

Those living in the Northeast have the easiest time choosing between airport options, although it's worth investigating where possible nationwide. One way to save time while still flying on a budget is to choose connections through airports with the fewest delays, Schulz said.

"Some really big hub airports like Atlanta, Charlotte or even LaGuardia in New York have far better travel delay numbers than other big connecting airports such as O'Hare, JFK and Dallas-Fort Worth," he said. "You might not be able to change where you leave from or where you ultimately arrive, but you may be able to have some control over that middle step, and that can help, too."

You can also play with timing your travel to save on both expense and hassle. If you're flying, driving or even boarding a train to spend specific holidays with extended family, you might be locked into certain travel dates.

But if you're opting to head out on a proper vacation from late November through early January, you should look at what Sam Shank, co-founder and CEO of online accommodations discounter HotelTonight said is not full "shoulder season" or "off season," per se, but rather "specific weeks that have a ton of great deals because other people aren't traveling as much and, if they are traveling, they're staying [with] friends and family."

Holiday Travel Bargains

Domestic:
• Austin, Texas
• Chicago
• Denver
• Las Vegas
• Portland, Oregon
• Washington, D.C.

International:
• Amsterdam
• Dubai
• London
• Paris
• Tulum, Mexico

Source: HotelTonight

Shank recommends the week before the actual week of Thanksgiving, and again before Christmas, as optimal. The former is the cheapest travel week of the year, he said.

"The week before Thanksgiving, in particular, is incredible because people don't want to travel two weeks in a row," Shank noted. "So if people can be flexible and go somewhere the week or weekend before Thanksgiving, they can get some really great deals."

Even if you're staying with relatives over the holidays, a mini-break mid-stay doesn't have to be out of the question, either. "There are times when the family can become a little much," Shank said, with a laugh. "People can say 'You know what? We're going to be here a week, so my wife and I are going to go away for one night instead of having to endure yet another family dinner.'"

Where to holiday

'That's something that can be decided in the moment," he noted, thanks to sites like HotelTonight, which provide last-minute and same-day deals on accommodations. It's related to a so-called megatrend among travelers to "not put all their vacation eggs in one annual trip basket," as Shank put it, and instead take "vacation snacks thought the year."

If you're free to pick your holiday destination, where should you head? HotelTonight points to Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., among other cities. "Vegas has great weather this time of year, all the shows are still active and all the restaurants open," said Shank, adding that cheap last-minute flights should be available from many markets. "And in D.C., the government will be in recess, so it's a good time to go and see the monuments."

Other good domestic destinations include Chicago, Denver, Austin, Texas; and Portland, Oregon, he said. If looking to travel abroad, consider London, Paris, Amsterdam, Dubai and Tulum, Mexico, Shank said.


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