10 Ways to Get Cheap Vacation Deals and Save on Travel

vacationIt’s official: Americans have the travel bug. According to the U.S. Travel Association (USTA), Americans logged 1.7 billion “person trips” for the primary purpose of leisure in 2014. The USTA defines a person trip as “one person on a trip away from home overnight in paid accommodations, or on a day or overnight trip to places 50 miles or more [one way] away from home.” That works out to 5.33 leisure-focused trips for every single man, woman, cash-strapped college student, sulky teenager, wiggly child, and brand new baby in the country.

With the recession still fresh in the country’s minds – and still lingering in the balance sheets of many people’s bank accounts – that seems like an awful lot of fun getaways for the average family to be able to afford. And yet, Americans are going places anyway. 1.7 billion places, to be exact.

The lesson here is that you don’t need to be rolling in disposable income to be able to take a breather somewhere outside your zip code. You simply need to know how to score some travel deals to make your trip less stressful on the wallet.

1. Be Flexible on Dates

Time of Year

After a long winter, spring break tempts millions away from their homes in favor of sunny destinations and fruity drinks with umbrellas in them. Unfortunately, that mass exodus creates demand that drives up both flight and hotel prices. Even if you’re staying within the continental United States, expect to share a plane with spring breakers on the first leg of their international trips – and expect to pay accordingly.

According to USA Today, there are two “dead zones” for travel within the U.S. These are times of the year when few people travel, flights are less in demand, and hotels are hurting for business.

They are:

  • Early December (once you’re fully clear of Thanksgiving)
  • The last three weeks in January and very early February

Be aware that hotel proprietors in warm destinations still might consider this window to be “peak season” since it’s during colder months for much of the country – but during these times, it’s worth contacting them to ask for a discount if they’re under-booked.

Visiting a location during the off-season is often cheaper and comes with fewer crowds. However, it may also come with downsides, including a lack of amenities (due to shops, restaurants, and other hospitality services closing down) and poorer weather.

The off-season and peak season differ by location. As a general guideline, warmer destinations are “on” during the winter, and cooler destinations are “on” during the summer – but there’s more nuance than that. For starters, winter and summer is flipped depending on whether you’re in the northern or southern hemisphere.

It’s a good idea to identify where you want to go – or, at least, have a short list – and determine the peak season for each location. For example, If you’re headed to Europe, any time during the winter months (November through March, with the exception of Christmas) will be cheaper than summer.

If you want to go to Mexico or the Caribbean, the opposite is true. Summer is much slower – since few people want to escape the heat by going somewhere even hotter – so if you’re willing to sit in the shade, you can save a few bucks.

Keep in mind that some hotels in the Caribbean don’t greatly lower their prices during off-peak times – often, it’s around 20% off peak-season prices – but you can always try to negotiate. And while direct flights to warm destinations might be somewhat cheaper (10% to 20%) during summer, summer is, overall, more expensive for flights than winter.

If you’re not sure where or when you want to travel, you can use Skyscanner to search for the cheapest month to fly from your chosen departure city. Unlike many other travel websites, Skyscanner doesn’t immediately require you to enter a destination or specific time-frame for your trip.

Days of the Week

Weekend getaways – leaving Friday and returning Sunday – are awfully convenient if you work a Monday through Friday job, but you can expect to pay handsomely. According to Expedia, which releases an annual Travel Trends White Paper, you’re likely to pay 20% less for a flight that departs on Thursday and returns on Monday than one that departs on Friday and returns Sunday.

An even better option is to depart Sunday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, and return Monday, Wednesday, or Thursday. Many sources, including U.S. News & World Report, cite Tuesday and Wednesday as the overall best bets for flights in either direction. If you want to get really specific, U.S. News & World Report recommends flying at 3pm on Tuesdays.

airport

2. Be Flexible on Destination

Use Destination Search Engines

People who are more concerned with getting a good deal than landing on a specific beach can use Skyscanner: Instead of selecting a specific destination, enter potential dates and a location of origin to see flight prices for options across the country and around the globe.

Other sites, such as CheapCaribbean.com and Travelzoo, simply list featured deals and discounts for various destinations at the top of their pages. Make sure to check the hotel and airline’s websites to ensure that the “deal” listed on the travel site is actually a discount over standard prices.

Go Off the Beaten Path

Going to underrated and under-traveled destinations can help you save money on accommodations and activities and avoid the crowds associated with top tourist spots. The Telegraph has named several tourist destinations that it considers to be underrated when compared to more well-traveled locales.

According to The Telegraph, these underrated locations are:

  • Bolivia: A four-star hotel in the heart of La Paz could cost $108 per night
  • The Philippines: A five-star hotel in Manila could cost $122 per night
  • Sierra Leone: A four-star hotel in Freetown could cost $141 per night
  • Honduras: A four-star hotel on the beach in Roatan could cost $134 per night
  • Albania: A five-star hotel in the heart of Tirana could cost $98 per night

While hotel prices might be cheaper in underrated locales, you do need to be aware that flight prices might be more expensive – and possibly at less convenient times with more stops – if it’s not a common route. For example, an August flight from Minneapolis to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil might cost around $857, but a flight at the same time from Minneapolis to La Paz, Bolivia costs $1,177. The distance is nearly identical, though most flights to La Paz require at least two (and, in many cases, three) stops, whereas there are flights available from Minneapolis to Rio de Janeiro with only one stop.

3. Create Fare Alerts

Since no one has time to check flight prices constantly throughout the day, it’s a good thing that you can ask someone else to do the searching for you. Sign up for a fare alert, which is a subscription notification (usually via email) that provides a selection of flights and prices to a chosen destination. For example, I receive a daily email that tells me the cheapest flights over the next six months to London, Paris, and Bora Bora.

You can set up an alert for either an exact set of dates or for the lowest price on any date. You can also choose to receive a daily email or a weekly email. Be aware that the weekly email might miss good flights that sell out before you receive your notifications. Theoretically, this can happen with the daily email too, though it’s less likely.

Two sites that offer fare alerts are Kayak and Airfarewatchdog. Kayak uses a computer-generated algorithm, while Airfarewatchdog employs analysts who are responsible for finding deals and sending out alerts.

4. Book at the Right Time

Rumors abound that when you book your flight matters, and there’s some evidence that this is true. For instance, an Expedia survey reveals Tuesday “is technically the least expensive day to purchase tickets when booked more than three weeks in advance.”

But don’t go setting a calendar appointment just yet. The study found that Tuesday wins by a very slim margin: only 5%. If you’re going to book a last-minute vacation, aim for booking on Sunday, which the study suggests is likely the best option. Remember that you’ll just be booking your tickets on a Sunday – ideally not traveling on Sunday.

The time of the week matters, but so does the amount of time before you intend to travel. CheapAir.com analyzed 1.5 billion airfares for just shy of 5 million domestic trips over the course of 2014 and recorded the lowest fare “for each trip every day from 320 days in advance up until one day before flight time.”

Domestic

CheapAir.com found that the best time to book a domestic flight falls within a window between one and four months before the flight, and the best time is exactly 47 days in advance. There isn’t sufficient variation by destination to warrant nitpicking when to book a flight to New York versus when to book a flight for California.

Ideally, you’d have a fare alert in place (or be willing to check flight prices regularly) so you can make a purchase if prices drop. However, if you don’t have time for that, try to stick with the 47-day rule (just under seven weeks in advance) if possible.

International

In 2014, CheapAir.com also analyzed nearly 2 million international trips covering 3,184 markets. International flights usually open for booking slightly less than a year in advance. CheapAir.com found that prices “stay fairly flat for a few months” after flights open for booking – but, of course, not all of us are ready to lock down travel plans nine months in advance. After the initial flat period, prices “start to creep up slowly, until about 90 days before departure when the pace of increase starts to accelerate.”

The short answer is that you should make sure to book international travel more than 90 days out if possible, but there is no blanket rule for a specific best day to book like there is for domestic travel. Instead, it varies by location.

Here are CheapAir’s recommendations:

  • Canada: Book 47 days out for best rates
  • Central and South America: Book 96 days out for best rates
  • Caribbean: Book 144 days out for best rates
  • Middle East: Book 213 days out for best rates
  • South Pacific: Book 244 days out for best rates
  • Mexico: Book 251 days out for best rates
  • Europe: Book 276 days out for best rates
  • Africa: Book 262 days out for best rates
  • Asia: Book 318 days out for best rates

flying

5. Sign Up for Emails

Many of us spend a lot of our time unsubscribing from promotional emails that we never wanted in the first place. However, if you’re in the market for a vacation deal, it’s not a bad idea to sign up for emails from sites such as Travelzoo that create occasional digests of hot travel deals.

These deals are different from fare alerts in that they don’t correspond to a locale of your choice – instead, it’s a company-curated list of deals that may include locations all over the country and the world. Signing up for these types of emails is particularly valuable if you aren’t set on a certain destination or time-frame and simply want to go somewhere and get a good deal on the trip.

Options include:

  • Travelzoo. Travelzoo promises the “Top 20 Travel & Entertainment Deals of the Week” in its email.
  • Groupon. Crowd-centered discounting giant Groupon has jumped on the travel deal bandwagon and now offers Groupon Getaways
  • Orbitz. Orbitz subscribers receive promo codes and advance notice on fare sales
  • Priceline. Priceline sends out emails with coupons and special offers

It’s worth noting that if the original price isn’t always posted for these types of deals, so you may not know exactly how much you’re saving (or if you’re saving at all). And while Groupon does post the percent savings (and it’s often 50% off or even higher), some critics point out that the “original” prices for Groupon deals and other discount sites are occasionally inflated to make the deals look better.

If you see a deal on a flight or hotel via a travel site email, it’s worth checking the airline and hotel websites to compare prices. The same goes for packages that include flights, hotels, or rental cars. Make sure you check the individual components to ensure that you’re actually saving money by booking together.

6. Harness the Power of Social Media

Follow your favorite airlines, hotel chains, and travel companies on social media to stay current on news and sales and, in some cases, gain access to exclusive promotions.

  • Twitter. According to Mashable, Virgin Atlantic and JetBlue are known to tweet deals to their followers. There are also several travel sites, such as @TravelDeals, that compile deals from various companies and tweet them out.
  • Facebook. Facebook is another possible source for travel deals. Just remember that by “liking” various companies, your news feed will be full of updates that are perhaps not always enticing.
  • Hotel Tonight. While Hotel Tonight is an app that bypasses direct communication with travel companies, it can still be a great source for good, last-minute deals. Hotel Tonight takes advantage of hotel owners’ desire to fill empty rooms by enabling last-minute bookings at up to 70% off standard rates. It’s available for iPhones, iPads, and Android devices.

7. Be Loyal

If you’re a frequent traveler, you can rack up points, miles, and status in a big hurry if you tend to stay with a certain hotel chain, fly on a certain airline, or rent a car with the same rental company. If you’re someone who travels only occasionally or you prefer to mix things up, you won’t benefit much from loyalty programs.

However, some loyalty programs don’t require a long-term relationship with the company to reap the rewards. For example:

  • Marriott Rewards. Marriott Rewards members can earn a free night’s stay at participating hotels by booking a consecutive four-night stay. That means you can earn rewards on a single trip.
  • JetBlue TrueBlue. U.S. News & World Report ranked JetBlue TrueBlue as number one on its list of Best Airline Rewards Programs. JetBlue primarily flies out of the East Coast and Florida, but if you live in either region and tend to travel domestically, this is one program to consider. Points can also be earned by traveling on its partner airlines, Emirates and Hawaiian Airlines. You can also earn points with hotel stays, car rentals, and “purchases with retail partners” – so you can rack up a whole bunch of points on a single trip.

Travel rewards credit cards are specifically designed to let a user earn points by making purchases and applying those points directly toward flights and hotels. Some travel rewards credit cards, such as the Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express, are limited by affiliation with a specific travel company. If you’re not keen on sticking to one provider, there are others – including the U.S. Bank FlexPerks Visa Cards – that allow you to apply points toward a wider range of travel services. (FlexPerks is affiliated with 150 airlines, as well as many hotels, cruise lines, and rental car companies.)

Choose a credit card that doesn’t allow points to expire. This way, you can save up points over a long period of time without feeling pressure to book something before you’re ready.

Remember that it’s important to pay off your credit card balance in full each month, since paying interest fees can quickly wipe out any benefits you might get from travel deals. If you’re looking to save money on travel, carrying a credit card balance is not the way to do it.

hotel reception

8. Consider Alternative Lodging

You don’t have to stay at the Four Seasons to have an incredible vacation. If you pick the right destination, you won’t want to spend much time in your hotel room anyway.

Alternative lodging means anything other than a traditional hotel. In short, that can include bed & breakfasts, vacation rental homes, hostels, housing swaps, and even couch surfing. Here is a snapshot of several affordable options worthy of your consideration.

Value Reviews Over Star Rating

Star ratings usually have more to do with amenities and level of guest service than they do with how positive the hotel experience is for guests. Here’s what the different star ratings mean:

  • Five-Star Hotel. Luxurious accommodations (such as high thread-count sheets, a pool, a spa, and high-end room service) and top-notch guest services that mean you can pretty much get whatever you ask for.
  • Four-Star Hotel. Well-cared for property with a variety of amenities, often including a pool, a spa, an upgraded fitness center, and likely a restaurant or lounge. Also assumes high-quality guest service.
  • Three-Star Hotel. High level of service and additional amenities beyond a two-star hotel, often including a fitness center and/or a pool.
  • Two-Star Hotel. Meets basic needs. Unlikely to have amenities such as a fitness center or a pool.
  • One-Star Hotel. Meets budget basic needs. You get a pillow, a bed, and sheets that are (probably) clean.

Of course, “top-notch guest services” is subjective. You could stay at a five-star hotel where the concierge is snooty and there’s constant construction, whereas you could find a gem of a two-star hotel where you’re treated like royalty by a warm, welcoming staff. That’s why it’s so important to value guest reviews over star ratings. Guest reviews give you an indication of what it’s actually like to stay at the hotel.

Using a website like Hotels.com or TripAdvisor, set your minimum guest rating level high (start with four stars and above) and be open to hotels at any star rating. Once you’ve eliminated all but the highest-reviewed hotels, sort by price from low to high. As long as the hotels on the list have a reasonable number of reviews – around 100 or more – it’s a fair bet that the hotel makes the best of whatever amenities they have.

It’s true that some hotels attempt to buy positive reviews, but if there’s a high number of reviews posted over a long period of time and they aren’t all glowing with artificial positivity, there’s a high chance that the reviews are legitimate. Try cross-referencing multiple sites to make sure the opinions are relatively consistent.

Try a Vacation Rental

Vacation rentals are becoming increasingly popular. Sites such as Airbnb, VRBO, and HomeAway permit homeowners to put their own properties up for rent whenever they won’t be using it. This is a good way to experience life as a local, because you’ll be staying in a residential area instead of one that caters to tourists. While some properties are tiny, cheap, and perfectly suitable for one person, vacation rentals are also a great way for a large group to get away together in a big house without having to pay for individual hotel rooms.

Vacation rental prices vary as much as hotel prices. Case in point: A search of one-bedroom vacation rentals in Manhattan during September results in options ranging from $60 per night to $2,800 per night. Vacation rentals are ideal for longer stays (seven nights or more). Many vacation rentals require minimum stays, so if you’re hoping for a weekend getaway, you may have to look elsewhere.

Use the Couchsurfing Website

For those with the right blend of frugality and an adventurous spirit – and perhaps a measure of bravery – there is couch surfing. Once limited to people with nowhere else to go and very generous friends, couchsurfing has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years.

Couchsurfing connects would-be travelers with hosts around the world who are willing to offer up a modest amount of space in their homes (not always an actual couch, though that is certainly common). As a matter of policy, Couchsurfing does not allow hosts to charge visitors money. However, it is common for visitors to thank their hosts by reimbursing the cost of groceries, or perhaps buying a gift equivalent to the extent to which they cleaned out their hosts’s wine cabinet.

Couchsurfing hosts sometimes take great pride in serving as tour guides and cultural ambassadors for their visitors. The website features quotes from visitors, such as Sam, who said, “Nong showed me the sights and helped me search out the best street eats (insects included!) during my week in Bangkok. She also helped me with more practical matters, like getting my Myanmar visa and planning the next leg of my Thailand trip.”

9. Be a Tease

Your web browser is watching you. Take advantage by engaging in a highly underrated activity that lets websites for travel, hotels, car rentals, or other vacation purveyors know that you’re interested – but aren’t yet ready to commit.

If you’re tempted to make a vacation-related purchase but are a little put off by the price tag, add the item to your electronic cart – but don’t go all the way through with the purchase. Before doing this, be very careful to make sure that it’s not a one-click purchase or a website where your payment details are stored, or anything else that will rope you into a purchase that you’re not ready to make.

Then, sit back and wait. Some (but not all) websites are set up to automatically send a coupon or other offer to people who almost make a purchase but change their minds at the last minute. Coupon values vary dramatically, so you have to know what will be enough to sway you. You might only get a token discount, but it’s not unreasonable to see 10%, 15%, or even 25% off.

By placing an item in your cart, the company can tell that you’re in the market. This makes you an incredibly valuable potential customer, and it doesn’t want to miss out on your business. If you entered an email address, watch your email over the next couple of days to see if the company has taken the bait. And don’t forget to either follow through with the purchase or clear your cart after a few days so you don’t make an accidental purchase down the road.

There is another way that the practice of almost purchasing can pay off. You’ve probably already noticed that, after conducting a web search for a specific item, the advertisements on the Internet pages you visit are chock full of that very item. Those ads might annoy you, but they also might contain tailor-made discounts on the exact hotel, cruise, or vacation package you were looking for. It’s worth a second glance.

10. Book a Package – Or Don’t

Many travel websites advertise big savings when travelers book a hotel, flight, and/or a car rental together. And it’s true: You can save money by combining some aspects of your trip with the same travel site.

However, the problem is that the packages can be quite unattractive. Often, the particular flight, hotel, or car is offered as part of a package is included because it’s not proving to be particular popular on its own.

For example, a writer for The New York Times searched for a long weekend getaway in Washington, D.C. and found a vacation package that looked like a tremendous deal. However, the hotel was 22 miles away from Washington. In other scenarios, the hotel might be fantastic, but your flight might have two stops and a 12-hour layover in Topeka. The bottom line is that it’s worth exploring package options, but be sure to scrutinize the individual components of the package to make sure you’re not compromising too much.

take-off

Additional Tips

If you’re still hungry for more ways to score deals on travel, consider one of the following options:

  • Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” Option. When using Priceline, you can enter the day you’d like to fly (or the day you’d like to stay at a hotel) and the price you’d like to spend. Priceline comes back with an offer of a flight or hotel, if there’s something available that meets your criteria. You find out the times of the flight and the star rating and general location of the hotel, but you won’t get to know the airline or specific hotel name until you book. Priceline claims that you can save 40% off published prices by using this method. Priceline also offers traditional booking services if you’d rather know exactly what you’re getting.
  • Hotwire’s “Hot Deals.” Much like Priceline, Hotwire is able to offer discounts if you’re willing to book a hotel, flight, or car without knowing the brand name. Unlike Priceline, Hotwire publishes the prices up front instead of allowing you to name your own price. So, for example, you’ll know that you’re booking a three-star hotel in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles that costs $120 per night, but you won’t know the name of the hotel until after you book.
  • Travel Auctions. There are two kinds of travel auction sites. One allows you to enter your preferred travel dates, destination, and class of service (such as economy or business class), and travel companies compete to offer the lowest-priced trip that meets your criteria. Flightfox is one site that operates this way: It charges a per-trip fee, and while the exact price depends on the trip itself, you can expect to shell out around $30. The other type of travel auction operates the opposite way: Companies offer flights, hotels, or packages, and users can bid on the trips. When the auction closes, the top bid wins. SkyAuction.com operates using this model. It’s free to bid – though you should be aware that additional taxes and fees are unlikely to be included in your bid price, so you will end up paying more than your bid if you win.

Final Word

While scoring deals can be lots of fun, be wary of deals that seem too good to be true. Scammers are ready and willing to take advantage of people who just want a good deal. For example, one scam involves calling people with a recorded message insisting that you’ve won a free cruise, when in reality the cruise is anything but free.

According to USA Today, the Better Business Bureau files well over 1,000 complaints in a single year from victims of “free” cruise scams. Other “too good to be true” deals may not be actual scams, but may require you to participate in a sales presentation, commonly for a time-share. Be alert, be skeptical, and be willing to put in the time to verify anything that doesn’t feel right.

What additional tips can you suggest to score great travel deals?

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