Holiday travel secrets of the pros

Lucy Maher, special to CNBC.com

The trouble with travel season

Travelers check their phones while waiting for a flight at La Guardia Airport during a winter storm on Feb. 2, 2015, in Queens, New York City.
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If you’re panicked about traveling over the next couplemonths, you’re in good company.

That’s because Thanksgiving. Christmas and New Year's areamong the nation’s busiest travel times, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,with the number of long-distance trips over the six-day Thanksgiving holidayincreasing by 54 percent, and 23 percent over the Christmas and New Year's period.

That oftentranslates to longer security lines, extended delays and frayed nerves, not tomention jacked-up prices for travelers wishing to organize a last-minutegetaway.

The good news? You can avoid all that with some time-testedtips from industry experts.

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Be flexible

Backcountry skier in Colorado.
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It's no secret folks looking to spend time with loved ones travel on days that correspond with school calendars and time off work. A better option? Extend your travel window a few days.

"Many families will book ski trips, for example, leaving on Dec. 26 so they can spend Christmas with their relatives," said Susan Farewell, founder and CEO of Farewell Travels. "Accommodations for the days leading up to Christmas are often much less expensive so if you can go on the 21st, 22nd, 23rd or 24th you can often save considerably."

Be willing to fly on December 25

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The same applies to travel on specific days. "Travel on Christmas Day if you can," said Farewell. "Many flights — and airports — are practically empty, and you'll often find the best price."

If Christmas Day happens to fall in the middle of the week, rather than on a weekend, you will fare even better, so to speak.

Use points-based credit cards

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"If you have good credit and can pay off your bills in full every month, travel credit cards can be extremely lucrative and are the main way that I'm able to fly first class internationally and stay at some of the nicest hotels in the world, often for less cash outlay than if I paid to fly coach," says Brian Kelly, author of The Points Guy.

His picks? The Chase Sapphire Preferred, Barclaycard Arrival Plus, Amex Platinum and Citi Prestige, which all offer a range of benefits including double points (Chase Sapphire) and a "fourth night free" option (Citi Prestige).

Check alternate airports

LAX airport in Los Angeles.
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Travelers to San Francisco can fly into SFO, which is 12 miles from the city, or choose to arrive at Oakland International Airport, just eight miles farther, but is the country's 10th cheapest airport, according to Cheapflights.com's 2015 affordability index.

The same logic applies to flights into the Los Angeles area; Long Beach is considerably less expensive than LAX, and just five miles farther.

Choose your destination wisely

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Though the Caribbean is teeming with sandy beaches, first-class restaurants and water sports from parasailing to windsurfing, Brian Major, an executive editor for TravallianceMedia, said the Cayman Islands are the best bet for most travelers looking to get away from winter's cold and snow, thanks to direct flights from 14 U.S. airports, and there are plenty of activities to keep multiple generations entertained.

"What's more, the island offers a selection of hotels that range from standard, such as the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort and the Wyndham Reef Resort Grand Cayman, to premium, such as the Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort and Spa to luxury, like the Ritz Carlton Grand Cayman.There are also a number of villa accommodations that are well suited to families."

Work with a travel agent

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In the age of on-demand hotel booking and apps that compare airfares, it might seem a little old-school to rely on a professional. But travelers headed to a first-time destination, or those that find themselves striking out while looking for last-minute accommodations, could benefit most from a travel agent's expertise.

"Many of the hoteliers, airlines and other travel suppliers send this information direct to travel agents and designers like myself," Farewell said. "My recommendation is that anyone wanting to find the best winter travel deals — including the holidays — should enlist the services of a travel professional. The special pricing we see is not usually advertised on their sites. For example, I just got an email telling me about a great four-nights-for-the-price-of-three in Hawaii. I also got a list of Caribbean villas which had not been rented yet for certain weeks throughout the winter season."

Know how to score an upgrade

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With the majority of flights booked during peak holiday flying times, it can be exceedingly difficult to move from Economy to Business, let alone First Class. Still, there are a few tricks Randy Petersen, founder of FlyerTalk, suggests:

For starters, know when you can secure an upgrade. For most members, it's either 24, 48 or 72 hours in advance for a confirmed upgrade. Airlines differ in when they begin the actual countdown. For some, you count backwards from the "day" of departure — which starts at midnight, often Eastern Standard Time. For others, you tick off the hours from the time of your flight's scheduled departure. Know and work the time differential to your advantage.

Don't have the miles necessary for an upgrade? Look no further than your favorite hotel guest program. Several of them offer airline upgrades in exchange for your hotel points.

Lastly, buy a coach ticket with an automatic upgrade. Some legacy lines offer no-cost, confirmed upgrades on higher-priced domestic coach tickets. In most cases, those upgrades are confined to connecting routes through the lines' major hubs. If you have to buy an expensive coach ticket anyhow, they're a no-brainer. But if you'd otherwise qualify for a much lower coach fare, the price premium can be substantial.

Use a fare predictor

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There are a slew of new sites and (free) apps that can track and predict the best time to buy tickets at the best price. You can even receive alerts on your phone when the airfare you are interested in drops.

"Seriously, forget all the research about how many fare changes there are in the industry and the suggestion that Tuesday is best," said Petersen. "It's really all about the particular destination you are flying to, not the average of 3,000 other destinations. I rely on a fare predictor such as FLYR, which takes all that data and applies it to specific routes. It has indicators that will let you know when to hold and when to buy. I like it that you can see the past trend of ticket prices, as well."