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These Expert Holiday Travel Tips Can Save You Time and Money on Your Next Flight

Worried about flying during the holidays? The Points Guy's Brian Kelly has five tips you probably haven't heard before.

Woman looking at flight schedules in an airport
Elena Noviello/Getty

This story is part of So Money, an online community dedicated to financial empowerment and advice, led by CNET Editor at Large and So Money podcast host Farnoosh Torabi.

Today's sky-high airfares are enough to make this grown woman cry. 

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In the past year, the average price of airfare has increased by more than 42%, according to the most recent Consumer Price Index report. People are also spending way more at airlines and travel agencies. Meanwhile, flying feels less reliable, with passengers facing burdensome disruptions -- from flight delays and cancellations to longer wait times and lost luggage. 

"The travel industry as a whole globally is under immense stress and to the point where it's breaking," said Brian Kelly, the founder of The Points Guy, which is owned by CNET's parent company. "I've never in my life seen the infrastructure of the travel industry simply just failing consumers on a daily basis."

Brian Kelly in a airplane seat holding a champagne glass
Brian Kelly of The Points Guy

Kelly would know. He's traveled to 85 countries for a total of over 500 flights. Hoping to get some advice for my So Money listeners (and myself), I reached out to him for some pro tips. In the podcast episode, Kelly provided his take on the state of airlines and why conditions for passengers may improve over time. To score the lowest deals, he says, it helps to book as far in advance as possible and use a comparison tool like Google Flights. Having some flexibility with travel dates can help, too. 

I was blown away by his insights. Here are some of his secrets to advocating for yourself and saving both money and hassle on your next trip this holiday season. 

1. Don't fall for travel 'protection' offers

There are a lot of reasons you may need to cancel your trip, and insurance can be a wise investment in some instances. Travel insurance can offer financial coverage for rental damages, lost luggage, flight delays, medical bills and ticket cancellation. But beware of travel "protection" programs that airlines routinely sell at checkout, which come with many clauses and caveats. 

Kelly called that supposed coverage "garbage," noting, "if you want real travel insurance, never buy it directly from the airline." Instead, he recommends checking your credit card's travel insurance benefits, which may offer many protections at no additional cost, or comparing policies at the independent marketplace InsureMyTrip.com

2. Buy a refundable ticket

With so many unknowns that are out of our control, sometimes a cheaper alternative to flight insurance is a refundable airline ticket, which you can cancel for any reason -- a change of plans, illness, etc. --  and receive a full refund. "People don't realize that sometimes it's only 50 bucks more," said Kelly, who also opts for refundable hotel room bookings. 

One hack he recommends is securing a refundable ticket first and then waiting until a day or two before the trip to see if a nonrefundable plane seat or hotel room is still available at a lower rate. If it is, you can cancel your ticket and rebook to save money. 

3. Know your passenger rights

With a shortage of staff, airlines are subjecting passengers to more flight delays and cancellations. If this happens to you, don't assume your only option is to rebook or receive airline credit. Kelly said that most customers don't realize that if their flight is delayed or canceled, they are owed a 100% cash refund. 

"The airlines are naughty with refunds. Don't let them give it to you in some sort of voucher. You got to get the cold hard cash," he said. 

Even if you miss your flight due to personal reasons, Kelly says, you can request a refund through the airline's website, and there's a possibility you'll get it. Sometimes the quickest way to locate an airline's instructions for requesting a refund is to go to Google and search for your airline and "request refund."

"It never hurts to ask," Kelly said. 

4. A nonstop flight may save you money

While adding a stop might lower your overall costs, it means adding more uncertainty to your trip, which could come with additional costs if one of your connecting flights is canceled and you need to book accommodations. "Anytime you needlessly add in another flight, you are asking for trouble," said Kelly. 

But if you have to get a connecting flight for whatever reason, make sure to give yourself at least two hours for the layover. For international flights, Kelly advised a four-hour gap between connecting flights. 

5. Book a backup flight with card miles

For events you absolutely can't be late for, such as a wedding, cruise or speaking engagement, Kelly recommends reserving one flight with a credit card and using miles to reserve a backup seat on another airline that departs a few hours later from the same airport. "In a worst-case scenario, if my original flight is delayed or canceled, I have that backup flight, because flights these days sell out," he said. 

Securing that substitute flight with his miles means he can cancel it and have his miles redeposited for free, since most airlines have eliminated cancellation fees for rewards bookings. 

"The airlines put consumers through the wringer. So where I can give myself and my readers a leg up in protecting themselves, I don't feel bad about it," said Kelly. 

For more travel tips this holiday season, check out my favorite ways to spend less on food, gas, travel and more. And find out the cheapest day to fly and how you can skip the busy airport lines with TSA Precheck, Global Entry or Clear.