Seven Secrets to Keep Holiday Travel Cheap

This is the story of a very foolish flier I will henceforth refer to as Clueless Traveler.

He is clueless because he makes every mistake in the book when planning a flight -- and drives up the cost of his trip up by more than 350 percent. I know most of you will never make such ridiculous mistakes, but trust me: it can and does happen.

Let's see where Clueless Traveler messed up, and how one can avoid this financial pain. All it takes is a little prep work. But more on that later.

By the way, the airfare and fees we will be dissecting are real figures; in the case of Clueless Traveler, the numbers come from the typical charges/fees of a legacy airline. Not to pick on legacy airlines because -- outside of checked bag fees -- most low cost airlines have similar fees, albeit at a slightly lower price point.

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Ready? This past weekend, Clueless Traveler made reservations to go home for Thanksgiving on a roundtrip flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. The airfare alone cost him $563.20, but the mistakes he made ballooned the total price to an incredible $2,046.

First mistake: No flexibility. Clueless made his reservation for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, returning on the Monday after. That Wednesday is always an extra-expensive day (as is the Sunday after Thanksgiving).

This year, Monday is not particularly reasonable either -- plus, several airlines have added a $10 "miscellaneous surcharge" to the ticket prices for travel on Nov. 29 and 30 just to make a few extra bucks.

How to Keep Holiday Travel Cheap

Second mistake: Reservations made by phone. Making reservations online is generally free, whether you use the airline site or a site like ours at FareCompare.com. You are penalized when booking by phone with a one-time charge of $25. That's easily avoided; if you don't have a computer, someone you know does.

Third mistake: Clueless Traveler originally made his reservations for different flights. A few days later he decided the times and dates weren't so convenient, so he made changes. Big mistake. His original ticket was "non-refundable," meaning he had to fork over a one-time "change fee" of $150 (we assume the new flight was the same price, which, in many cases, is much more).

Fourth mistake: Clueless picked seats with extra leg room. Now, this may not qualify as a "mistake" if this is something you genuinely want or need, but if you're looking for the cheapest airfare, this is an extra you can probably do without. Cost for LA to Chicago leg room: $39 each way.

Fifth mistake: Multiple bag fee transgressions. Where to begin? First, he didn't "pack light" and take a carryon bag, which would have cost him nothing. Then he decided he must take two checked bags, and instead of paying for them online (a savings of $5 a bag), he checked them at the airport.

It gets worse: one of the bags weighed 51 pounds, which put it in the "overweight" category; instead of jettisoning an item or two, he blithely paid the $125 one-way penalty fee. The other bag was an old-fashioned steamer trunk that Clueless loaded with Christmas presents, thinking he'd save on mailing costs. Bad idea, since this huge trunk is "oversized" -- which means another penalty of $175 one-way.

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