I love many things about living in New York City, but getting through winter and early spring is certainly not one of them. During this time, I tend to experience, without fail, what I’ve come to call my annual day of reckoning, in which I question my fundamental decision-making skills and curse myself for actually choosing to plant my roots in this frigid-AF town. Why do you do this to yourself every year, again? I’ll wonder, bummed and exasperated, while trudging through a pile of annoyingly familiar slush. And why haven’t you moved to California yet, like all of the other more rational human beings you know?
On and on I will go, picturing those L.A. palm trees and that warm Pacific air, until I remember that, oh wait, I don’t actually want to move to California. While 24/7 sunshine seems nice in theory, especially while I’m wrapped up in the burrito blanket that is my winter uniform, I actually really like New York during the rest of the year—I just need a dose of sunshine to get me through the cold-weather misery and keep me going from December to April.
And that’s why I’ve become 100 percent reliant on my annual warm-weather winter getaway. As a travel writer, I’m privileged in that I get to travel a fair bit throughout the year, exploring new places and cultures and bringing fresh ideas home—but this particular trip is different. I don’t really care where I go or what I see and do, as long as it’s a sunny, warm, and cheap getaway. I don’t have to stay in a super nice hotel, and I don’t mind if my days won’t be packed with cultural activities, either.
The idea is simply to treat my brain to some much-needed sunshine, because it turns out, my brain doesn’t really care if it’s resting on a five-star lounge chair or a towel I borrowed from my Airbnb host. And chances are, yours won’t, either—you’ve just gotta get to the chair or the towel in the first place. With that in mind, I asked a bunch of sunshine-seeking travelers for their smartest tips on how to book a cheap getaway somewhere warm and sunny. Paired with my own advice, we’ve got your back.
Consider this your guide to planning a low-maintenance warm getaway that’s good for your mind and body—and won’t empty your bank account.
1. Try to think of this trip as a must, not a maybe.
I’ve written before about how, for me, travel is the ultimate act of self-care. While this is the case year-round, I think it’s especially true for me during the cold, winter months, when my exposure to the sun is particularly low.
To ensure that I actually make the vitamin D trip happen, I’ve found that it’s incredibly helpful to reframe it as a nonnegotiable. Rather than thinking of it as something I could do, I think of it as something I must do to maintain my mental health, right up there with writing in my journal and running (yes, even in the cold).
To follow my lead, try blocking out a couple days on your calendar in advance, so that they’re there right alongside your can’t-bail doctor’s appointments. Just as crucial: Budget for it the same way you would something else that you prioritize each year, even if that means saying no to some other things that aren’t quite as important as this. And even if you can only manage a couple days away from home, it’s still worth it—the important thing is that you try to treat them as mandatory.
2. Let flight costs determine your destination.
Since the whole goal of this trip is to get some sun on the cheap, it doesn’t really matter where you get it. So why not go wherever you can get the cheapest flight possible?
Google Flights is a convenient resource to quickly aggregate flight cost/availability information from third-party sites in an easy-to-use calendar format. It’s not perfect (it doesn’t pull information from every single travel website or airline, for example), but it’s useful if you’re flexible with your location and/or dates. It also allows you to track the prices of specific flights you’re interested in and emails you when the price changes.
“You can either put in a specific destination and view their calendar so you can see which days are less expensive than others to fly, or you can put in a general destination like Europe or California on specific dates and it will show you the fares to different airports in that general destination,” Tausha Cowan, 33, a Google Flights devotee who runs the blog The Globe Getter, tells me.
Travel writer Stephanie Walden, 30, is also a big fan of the free travel fare aggregator Momondo for impromptu trips. “They have a new feature where you can search [for] the cheapest destinations from any home-base airport, which is perfect for people who want to go somewhere but don't have a set itinerary,” she tells me. “For me, a mix of Google Flights to search for the cheapest dates and Momondo to search for deals and ‘optimal’ flights is a winner.”
3. Or, follow flight deal sites for last-minute discounts.
There are a lot of them out there, but my particular favorites are The Points Guy, The Flight Deal, Airfare Watchdog, Secret Flying, and TravelPirates. Their employees literally spend their days scouring the Internet for last-minute flight deals, and then sharing them with their followers—so all you have to do is follow them on Twitter and/or sign up for their newsletters or text-message deal alerts. Secret Flying even has an app that delivers instant alerts to deals from your home airport.
Of course, the difference between these deals and simply using Google Flights to find steals is that these deals tend to be super specific, like flying on random days of the week and at random times. But if your sole objective is to get some sunshine at some point in March or April, and you don’t really care about much other than that and are able to be flexible, then these deals could actually be quite perfect for you.
4. Join a few closed Facebook travel groups.
You’ll be surprised at how much great advice you can get.
"Researching destinations and planning trips is part of my job as a travel journalist, so when my family and I can sneak away to the beach for a real family vacation, I like to spend as little time as possible finding a winter deal,” travel journalist Lauren Matison, 34, tells me, adding that she never thought Facebook would become one of her “go-to travel resources.”
Matison finds the best advice in closed groups—like Tiny Globetrotters and Women Who Travel—where members are more than willing to share their best intel, “whether you're looking for an offbeat all-inclusive hotel or need help snagging a last-minute fare on a cheap booking site,” she explains.
5. Get a crew together.
If you’re flying with 10 or more people, you may qualify for a group airfare and hotel rate through certain platforms. For example, if you book through the new venue platform meetings.com, you can get instant group rates and discounted group deals, says the site’s cofounder Tim Hentschel, who’s also the CEO and cofounder of HotelPlanner.
“Customers can send the page to their friends or network through WhatsApp and Facebook to see who’s interested in joining and can secure additional group travel deals once they have a confirmed number of travelers,” Hentschel explains. One word of caution: Be sure that one person books for the entire group, as opposed to each person booking individually. That’s because the instant group rate discounts—which are, on average, 20 percent off the lowest published online rates—don’t kick in until you book at least three hotel rooms per night, so you’re more likely to hit that rate if you’re booking for a big group.
6. Always try to negotiate your accommodation rates.
It may not work every time, but you can attempt to bargain the price down for a hotel room or Airbnb. “I always call the hotel I’m staying at to see if I can get the price down—it’s amazing how much of a discount you can get just by talking to a real person!” advises Elyse Eisen, 33, publicist and founder of The Tipsy Traveler blog. “Remember, they want your business,” she continues. If you do some research and see that other locales in the area are cheaper but are particularly keen on one hotel, “Tell the reservationist that you found another hotel nearby at a lesser rate (within reason), and you’ll be surprised how fast the price can come down,” Eisen suggests.
Another way to do this is to check third-party websites selling travel, and then call the hotel directly and let them know the price you’ve found and ask them to match it, advises Stef Michaels, travel expert and CEO of the travel site Adventure Girl. “Because hotels want your business, they’ll often throw in perks you wouldn’t get via a third-party booking site,” she adds.
Similarly, if you’re staying at an Airbnb, don’t forget to at least try to negotiate that rate, too. When Walden spots a property she likes on Airbnb, for example, she often messages the host to see if they're willing to cut her a deal. “A lot of people don't realize that many Airbnb hosts are open to negotiations, particularly for new listings without many reviews, shoulder-season timing, or longer-season stays,” she explains. She also tries to be an impeccable guest so that her reviews are strong, which definitely helps her case.
7. Try to score a space with a kitchen.
One of my favorite parts of traveling is trying local food—which means that for me, vowing to cook all of my meals in my Airbnb is unrealistic. That said, vowing to cook one meal is actually very doable.
The easiest one, for me, is definitely breakfast. And Walden agrees: “There’s no need to pay $10 for eggs at a sit-down restaurant every morning if I can make them at home, so I try to at least do that, which lets me save up for lunches and dinners out on the town,” she says.
If you don’t feel like cooking or you’re staying in a hotel, Samantha Cassetty, who is an NYC-based registered dietitian, suggests bringing a few oatmeal packets with you, so all you have to do is heat up some water. “It’s also fun to grocery shop like a local, and go to the local market on your first day to buy fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fresh breads that you can pair with your breakfast,” she says.
Annie Daly has written about travel for BuzzFeed Travel, Yahoo! Travel, AFAR, United Hemispheres, Cosmopolitan, and more.