If you thought last holiday season was busy at our nation’s airports, you might be in for a shock this year. A recent Bankrate survey revealed that 48 percent of U.S. adults are planning an overnight leisure trip around the November/December holidays, up from 43 percent last year.

It has already been a busy year in the skies. From Jan. 1 through Oct. 12, the Transportation Security Administration screened 13 percent more air travelers this year compared with the same dates in 2022. This year, the agency has processed about 1 percent more fliers than it did during the same period in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The airline industry is still struggling to keep up

The Department of Transportation says that just 76.4 percent of flights have arrived on time this year, a slight improvement from last year but still the second-worst performance since 2014. At least cancellations have been halved (from 3.2 percent a year ago to 1.6 percent now).

To my surprise, pent-up demand is still a big deal. I thought 2022 was the year of “revenge travel” as pandemic restrictions came down and consumers were raring to go here, there and everywhere. I thought most people got the travel bug out of their system last year, especially as high inflation and high interest rates are darkening consumers’ moods in 2023.

But while consumer sentiment remains depressed and Americans have pulled back on some types of spending (especially physical goods), many of us are still spending freely on experiences such as travel, dining and live events.

Interestingly, STR reports that after a strong first quarter, hotel occupancy has been falling on a year-over-year basis since April. Air travel demand, conversely, has strengthened as the year has progressed. The continued rise of short-term rental platforms may help explain the disconnect. Airbnb, for instance, reported 11 percent more bookings during the second quarter of 2023, compared with Q2 2022. So people are still traveling, they’re just altering some of their habits.

Other ways travelers are adjusting

Speaking of changing travel tastes, our latest Bankrate survey found that 77 percent of holiday travelers are making adjustments due to inflation. This includes 27 percent who plan to drive to their destination instead of flying, 23 percent who intend to take fewer trips and another 23 percent who are opting for less expensive accommodations and/or destinations.

We observed a similar trend during the summer travel season. I think it’s harder to save money around the holidays, unfortunately, because the timeframe is more constrained. But there are still some things you can do.

How to save money on travel

For starters, if you haven’t already booked your holiday travel, do so as soon as possible. Prices will probably only increase from here.

Next, take stock of your credit card rewards, frequent flier miles and hotel points to see if you have enough for a free (or at least discounted) trip.

And consider zigging when others zag. This is admittedly easier during other times of the year. For example, if you want to go to the beach during the summer but you don’t really care which beach, comparison shop for the best deals. You might even consider traveling during the shoulder season for added savings and fewer crowds.

But if you want to go to grandma’s house for Christmas, you don’t have a whole lot of flexibility. You could still consider bending a bit, such as traveling a few days before the peak holiday rush and/or returning a few days later. Flying on the holiday itself is often a bargain, if you’re willing to roll the dice that you’re able to arrive in time for the family dinner. Adding a layover or choosing a more distant airport could also save you some money.

A bit of good news is that airline fares dropped 13 percent from Sept. 2022 to Sept. 2023, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And car and truck rental prices dipped about 9 percent, although lodging away from home (including hotels and motels) rose 8 percent.

Credit cards provide a lot of valuable travel perks

We’ve already touched upon how impactful it can be to use your existing rewards to fund a free or discounted trip. The holidays are also a smart time to sign up for a new credit card with a generous introductory bonus since you can earn a free trip or cash back from spending that you would have done anyway.

Many credit cards include valuable travel insurance benefits, too. These include trip cancellation and interruption insurance, rental car insurance, assistance if your flight is delayed, lost luggage protection and more.

One of my favorite travel tips is to avoid pricey checked bag fees by signing up for an airline credit card. Especially if you’re loyal to a particular airline, signing up for its credit card can save you a substantial amount of money. In exchange for a modest annual fee (starting around $95, usually), you can often get free checked bags for your entire traveling party. At $30 a bag, a couple traveling together could recoup the annual fee (and then some) in just one round-trip. The savings multiply the more trips you take, especially if you have a larger family. Airline credit cards also make it easier to earn elite status and can include other benefits such as priority boarding.

Some credit card perks are on the chopping block, however

We’ve begun to see a backlash against the proliferation of certain credit card travel perks. For instance, some road warriors complain that airport lounges have gotten too crowded and the TSA PreCheck line sometimes stretches further than the “regular” security line.

Delta recently instituted much stricter limits on who can access its lounges (including big cutbacks on premium cardholders). Earlier this year, American Express stopped allowing most of its Platinum and Business Platinum card members to bring guests into its Centurion Lounges for free. And some credit card issuers that offer Priority Pass airport lounge privileges no longer extend those perks to airport restaurants affiliated with Priority Pass.

Alas, these cutbacks fall firmly under the “first-world problems” umbrella, but they are still notable examples of how travel has changed in 2023.

The bottom line

Regarding holiday travel in 2023, the first two words that come to mind are “busy” and “expensive.” But don’t let the crowds or the price tag ruin your holiday. There are ways to get home for the holidays without breaking the bank. Thanks to the right credit card strategy, you can save some money and travel in style.

Have a question about credit cards? E-mail me at ted.rossman@bankrate.com and I’d be happy to help.