If you're reading this in 2016, congrats: You're about to live through one of the heaviest seasonal travel weeks in American history. AAA estimates that some 103 million Americans will travel for year-end holidays, a record helped along by cheap gas and modest costs for rental cars and airfare.
But don't let $2-a-gallon unleaded lull you. Frantic, weather-beaten December travel is a perfect time to wind up spending more than you mean to. Sometimes it's because we're rushed, other times weighted down, or others just too swept up with the holiday spirit to really care. But that still doesn't mean we have to give away our money to anyone but nephews, nieces, and the occasional bell-ringing street Santa. We talked to Carrie Smith of DealsPlus.com, and she hipped us to six common fees, and how to avoid them.
Scout out ATM fees
Some people like to be all 21st-century cool and say, "Oh, I NEVER carry cash." Which not only pisses off valets, bellhops, and Christmas party bartenders who never get tipped; it also makes it tough to hand a quick $50 to that little cousin you totally forgot to buy a present for. It's a fact of life that ATMs become all the more necessary when we travel around the holidays.
Smart travelers look and see which in-network ATMs their bank partners with. Those may be obvious as the ones in front of the grocery store, or at a local credit union. If you have a national bank, make note of where its ATMs are in the city you’re visiting. And if your bank is local, it will likely still have partner ATMs that don't charge fees.
Lock in low foreign transaction fees
Because you can't put a price on the joy on a small child's face, December can be an occasion for taking on new credit cards. Questionable financial responsibility aside, the applications are where you want to watch for foreign transaction fees, among others. Credit cards are generally considered a wise move when spending overseas since they give you the best exchange rate. But fees of 2% to 3% often negate any savings. Doesn't sound like much, but if you pay for hotels, meals, and "I Heart Paris" T-shirts with plastic, that can mean $100 or so you're flushing away. Or, like, 15 "I Heart Paris" T-shirts.
So look into cards that don't charge these fees long before you travel. Why, here's a list of a few good ones all ready to go. Even if you don't have international travel planned over the holidays, this time of year can help you avoid these fees in the future.
Land the cheapest airport parking
Airports during the holidays might be as close to Calcutta driving as most Americans ever care to get. Even asking for a ride is a big ask. You may simply opt to bite the bullet and park at the airport.
But shop wisely. If you've got an AMEX, check out the free rides Uber is giving to 11 major airports throughout the holidays. Even without an AMEX, ride shares to and from the airport can often be cheaper than a week’s worth of parking. If you must park, be savvy: The airport will almost always charge the most expensive rate. Sites like AirportParkingReservations.com can compare pretty much every lot around your airport of choice. Once you find your ideal spot, go ahead and call the lot directly to book. You'll save the service fee and often get a better rate.
If you'd rather not leave your car alone in the cold, ride-share vans like SuperShuttle and GO Airport Shuttle are almost always cheaper than a taxi or ride share. Of course, they also pick up/drop off other passengers along the way, and you may get picked up at 4am for an 8am flight. It just depends how much your time (and sleep) are worth.
Don't pay to check bags
Stuffing every present into a "carry-on" bag that requires a hydraulic system to lift is really not an option. But for every bag full of goodies you lug, you could be looking at $50 or $60 added on to the cost of your round trip. So the first thing to do is comparison shop, factoring in bag fees. Southwest is the last major airline not to charge them, and with up to two free bags even a flight that's $100 more expensive can be ultimately cheaper.
If you're not up for open seating and witty banter over the PA system, legacy carriers have ways around their fees too. If you're traveling with an elite frequent flyer (or are one yourself) they'll typically get two bags for free, one of which can be yours. Airline-specific credit cards also offer this as a perk, and some offer two free bags as well.
Don't get gouged on toll roads
When traveling solo, sometimes you rock taxis and ride shares. But when traveling with your whole brood and roughly 400lbs of Christmas presents, rental cars become a necessity. In some parts of the country, that means taking toll roads. Toll transponders get you through plazas faster and don't require a trip to the ATM. But car rental companies know most tourists don't have a transponder for the local toll system, and have the chutzpah to charge upwards of $15 to use the ones attached to the car. That's before actual tolls.
The good news is you can buy most transponders ahead of your trip, and you can activate them online once you get the rental car plate number. In some cases, they come pre-loaded with enough credits to offset the cost of the transponder, and you can always bring it home and save it for your next trip.
Build in travel insurance fees
Weather happen. Relatives happen. Whatever, holiday travel plans fall through. With most airlines now charging change or cancellation fees more than the cost of the ticket, this is the best time of year to buy travel insurance.
Also known as the annoying box you forgot to check before clicking "book now," trip cancellation coverage can run you $50 or more on more expensive reservations. But much like rental car collision damage waivers, you don't always need to pay it. "Most credit cards and discount travel programs, like AAA, already have trip cancellation and travel insurance built in," Smith says. "Most credit cards offer coverage up to $1,500 for no extra charge, so be sure to review their terms for purchasing additional trip cancellation coverage." You just want to double-check that the card with the best built-in insurance is the card you're actually using to book your trip.
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