Summer is the busiest travel season of the year – and also one of the most expensive. High demand for gasoline, airline tickets, hotel rooms, cruises, and entertainment often results in sky-high prices.
But you don’t have to resign yourself to either forgoing a fabulous vacation or busting your budget. Great travel deals abound, and there are many ways you can stretch your vacation dollars.
The trick is to plan ahead and look at the total cost your vacation. Here are some tips for finding the most budget-friendly destinations and economizing on transportation, accommodations, and entertainment.
Book Early to Find the Best Deals
“Booking early is definitely recommended,” says Heather Hunter, American Automobile Association (AAA) spokesperson and public relations manager. “It’s not like several years ago when there were travel deals all during the season. There will still be some last-minute deals this summer, but in general you’re better off the further ahead you book. These days, the early bird really does get the worm. You have a greater selection and a better chance of finding the cheaper rates if you book early.”
So get online as soon as possible and start searching Web sites such as Hotwire.com, Priceline.com, and Kayak.com to find the best deals on air fares, car rentals, and hotel rates.
“It’s good if you have a flexible vacation schedule,” Hunter says. “If you don’t have to nail down your exact vacation dates, check the rates for several weeks because they can vary drastically. A travel agent can help you with that as well. They might know if a particular time frame is really popular for a destination where you are going to pay higher rates. They also work directly with the suppliers and are aware of promotions that might come up.”
Rates tend to be highest around busy holidays such as Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day. Airlines and hotels have little incentive to offer big discounts when they’re nearly booked to capacity. So it’s usually more economical to schedule a vacation that doesn’t coincide with a holiday.
If there’s no way to get around scheduling a vacation during a holiday, Hunter recommends choosing a city that relies on convention and business travelers. “Rates in those cities tend to be lower during the holidays and on the weekends,” she says.
Typically, hotels that cater to business travelers are more expensive Sunday-Thursday when business travelers generally travel, and less expensive on the weekends. While hotels that typically cater to leisure travel are usually less expensive during the week. It requires research – a qualified travel agent can also assist in finding a hotel that fits your needs and promotions that are available. Also be sure to take advantage of any discounts that you might be eligible for such as AAA Discounts or AARP Discounts which can save from 5-20 percent on partner hotels.
Be aware that you’re sure to pay top dollar if your vacation coincides with special events such as big-city festivals in the United States, the annual Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany, or this year’s Summer Olympics in the United Kingdom. Unless your heart is set on attending such an event, don’t make the mistake of booking a vacation where there are sure to be crushing crowds and big bills.
When planning a vacation, it’s important to consider its total cost. “When you’re looking for a hotel, don’t just look at the price of the room,” Hunter says. “Also look at what’s included.”
If the hotel offers free parking, breakfast, and wi-fi, a pool, fitness center, and evening entertainment, it can be much more economical to stay there than at a less-expensive hotel that either has no such amenities or charges extra for them.
Finding Deals on Land Vacations
According to AAA, this summer’s top land vacation destinations are:
- Orlando, Florida.
- Honolulu, Hawaii.
- Rome, Italy.
- London, England.
- Anaheim, California.
The Orlando area has consistently held the valedictorian spot in the top destination class year after year.
The Wall Street Journal reports that theme parks, including those in Orlando, are concerned about a slow summer, and that the tough economy will cut into the all-important summer traffic they need to sustain themselves all year.
So some Orlando theme parks are offering package deals to lure more families to their gates. These include:
- Walt Disney World Resort, which is offering free family meal plans for guests staying at a Disney resort or hotel.
- Universal Studios Orlando, which has discounts on admission and parking for guests staying at their on-site hotels.
Virgin America is making travel more affordable to Orlando this summer. The airline now has service from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Orlando. Due to the increased capacity, fares to Orlando have decreased, particularly for flights from Dallas-Ft. Worth.
If you’re planning a theme-park vacation, start by exploring admission discounts on your computer. To save money and bypass lines, download tickets, print them and take them to the park. If it’s too expensive to rent a room at the theme park, consider staying at one of the budget hotels near the theme park.
Many theme parks, including Six Flags, offer passes that allow multiple visits for a discounted price. Taking advantage of such passes can save you a small fortune, especially if you have a large group in tow.
Passes can also save you money if you’re vacationing in a big city. Examples include:
- The New York Pass, which provides admission to 40 of New York City’s top attractions for as little as $75 a day.
- Go Select Pass, which lets you build a custom pass for the attraction you most want to see in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Diego, and Oahu.
- Go Card USA, which offers passes for 13 U.S. cities and Toronto, Canada.
Other ways to save money on a big-city vacation include city-specific Entertainment Discount Books, which are filled with coupons, including two-for-one coupons for meals and attractions. If you use just a few coupons, odds are you’ll recoup the entire cost of the book.
Also consider Restaurant.com gift certificates, which can be bought online for $10 or less and are accepted at participating restaurants as $25 certificates.
If high-priced hotels are giving you sticker shock, consider joining HomeExhange.com, which has more than 18,000 listings worldwide for regional and international home swaps. For an annual fee of $100, you received unlimited access to the site’s data base.
Finding Deals on Cruises
According to AAA, this summer’s top cruise destinations are:
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) forecasts that more than 17 million vacationers will cruise the world’s waterways in 2012, one million more than last year.
“There are some discounts available on cruises or for particular sailings,” Hunter says. “Again, a travel agent can assist here. Cruising is another form of travel where you need to consider the total cost. Many times, cruising includes meals. The ship is your transportation and your room. So meals, transportation and lodging are all included in the price. However, if you have to fly to the cruise port, consider how much air transportation will be.”
Budget-minded travelers have long known that cruising is an economical way to see an entire group of islands series of expensive cities. In places such as the Caribbean and Europe, cruising is one of the most cost-effective modes of travel.
“If you're thinking about taking a cruise, AAA Travel has exclusive offers from Celebrity Cruises for Alaska itineraries out of Seattle that include special onboard credits and AAA member savings,” Hunter says. “ResortVacationsToGo.com is listing deals of up to 50 percent off for Alaska cruises and tours in June with Princess Cruises.”
Other cruise deals to consider this summer are those offered by:
- Carnival, which sometimes marks down its late-summer cruises to fill the last few cabins.
- eCruises.com, which offers summer deals from its home page, including last-minute deals for remaining empty cabins. Such offers come and go quickly.
- Norwegian Cruise Line, which has posted some summer cruises in Europe, including some 12-day trips. Early birds may pay as little as $649.
- Royal Caribbean, which is offering three-night Bahamas cruises during the summer for under $350 per person.
Finding Deals on Overseas Travel
“Some suppliers are offering incentives for European travel this summer,” Hunter says.
“Last year, several airlines made cost-saving adjustments by reducing seating capacity, consolidating routes, and replacing large aircraft with smaller more fuel-efficient airplanes,” states the AAA’s press release on summer destinations.
“Following those capacity reductions and this year’s rising fuel costs, some travel suppliers including tour companies and cruise lines have begun offering price incentives to attract travelers. Savvy summer vacationers have been taking advantage of those incentives especially for international travel. Vacationers can visit the nearest AAA Travel office or AAA.com for more price incentive information.”
If you’re headed to Europe during the peak summer season of July to mid-August, consider booking a flight to Spain. Some experts predict that fares will be $300-600 less expensive than to other European countries. That’s because flights to Spain – especially the popular cruise embarkation port Barcelona – are usually fuller, which allows airlines to give passengers a better break on fares.
Also consider booking a flight to Ireland, which has a fuel surcharge as much as $70 cheaper than other European countries. Aer Lingus offers summer fares between the U.S. and Europe, and some of their one-way fares for selected June dates are under $400.
Even if Barcelona or Dublin aren’t your final destinations, flying there first can save money for low-cost flights to other European cities.
Saving Money on Gasoline
There’s nothing you can do about high gas prices other than use special apps on electronic devices which can tell you where to find the least expensive gas along your route.
But there other things you can do to save money on fuel. “One is making sure you properly inflate your tires,” Hunter says. “We’ve found that only 17 percent of people have their tires properly inflated and that can reduce your fuel economy. Another factor is aggressive driving. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that aggressive driving can lower a car’s fuel economy by up to 33 percent. Also, plan your trip so you take the most direct route without as many stops.”
“Another thing to you can do to stretch your gas it to lighten your load,” Hunter says. “Our motto is: ‘Take the junk out of your trunk.’”
If you’re planning a long-distance drive, the last thing you want is for your vehicle to break down in an unfamiliar city and leave you at the mercy of price-gouging mechanics who will never see you again. So it’s important to schedule a pre-trip check up with a trustworthy local mechanic who can inspect and if necessary replace belts, tires, and other necessities, and also ensure that your air conditioner keeps you cool on broiling summer days.
If you find that high fuel prices will jeopardize your vacation plans, consider leaving your vehicle at home and taking the bus. In North America, Greyhound offers a Discover Pass that grants unlimited travel for seven days at $246, 15 days at $356, 30 days at $456 and 60 days at $556. If you opt for the 60-day offering, you can travel for a little over $9/day, a figure that even the most fuel-efficient cars can’t possibly match.
Saving Money on Airline Tickets
According to travel experts, 80 percent of airline airfare sales start on a Tuesday and end on a Thursday. To get the best deals, avoid booking a flight until 4 p.m. Eastern time on the day an airfare sale begins. That’s because it takes time for other airlines to match and post lower fares.
You’ll also get a better deal if you fly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when fares can be half as expensive as those on Fridays and Sundays.
If you need travel insurance, you’re likely to get better rates and coverage from credit-card companies, auto clubs and your homeowners or renters insurance policies than from insurance directly offered by the airline.
Because summer is such a busy travel season, security lines can be extremely long. So give yourself extra time to get to airports. If you miss your flight, the resulting itinerary changes may subject you to expensive penalties. As long as you exercise common sense, this is one airline fee that’s 100 percent avoidable.
It may not be possible to avoid one of the most-hated fees – baggage fees that can increase the cost of your trip by up to $35 per bag per flight – especially if you’re taking a lengthy vacation. But packing as lightly as possible, and placing all of your essentials in one overhead bag, can result in substantial savings for you and your party. It also can save you the hassle – and a possible sore back – of transporting heavy bags to and from the airport.
Bottom line: Plan ahead and consider the total cost of a vacation. Knowing that you’re en route to an exciting summer destination at a price you can afford will give you the peace of mind you need to get the most out of your vacation.
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