Hitting the road this summer? Here's how to save a bundle on hotels, flights and more.
Memorial Day weekend kicks off the summer travel season, and according to travel booking website Orbitz.com, more than three-quarters of Americans are planning to take a summer vacation. To ensure your hard-earned travel dollars go as far as they can, U.S. News talked to veteran travelers and experts to reveal these under-the-radar money-saving tips.
1. Call before booking online. Making travel arrangements through the Internet may be convenient, but it doesn't always guarantee you the best deal. Nicole Lapin, editor-in-chief of Recessionista.com, recommends calling a hotel around 4 p.m. local time on Sunday afternoon and asking to speak with a manager or supervisor. The person answering calls at the hotel's toll-free number may not have the power to cut you a deal, but the hotel's local manager or supervisor often does. Mention you're celebrating a birthday or anniversary, or use Lapin's strategy: "I've seen the rate of $199 per night in the past. I was wondering if you could match that? Maybe there's a room in the back that isn't as coveted?"
This strategy can work with airline tickets, too. "It's a myth that all the available inventory is available on the Internet," says Peter Greenberg, travel editor at CBS News. "We go online because it's easy, but we do so at our own peril if we're looking for a deal." In some cases, booking by phone may incur an extra fee, so Greenberg recommends that consumers compare the price they can get online to the one offered by phone, and factor in any extra fees. "They only charge you the phone-booking fee if you book by phone," he says. "Anytime you get on the phone, you still have 24 hours in which to pay for your ticket. Hold that fare, go online and see if you can beat it."
2. Go against your traveler type. Another way to save on hotel stays is to choose properties that are less crowded and thus have an incentive to discount their rooms. "Go after business hotels for weekend stays, and go after leisure hotels for weekdays," suggests John DiScala, veteran traveler and founder of travel website JohnnyJet.com. "Business hotels are packed Sunday through Thursday, and then they're pretty much empty on the weekends. They're always looking for folks so they'll offer really good deals."
Certain chains such as Marriott tend to cater to business travelers, but DiScala says it's also somewhat dependent on the destination. Traveling during off-season or shoulder season (the period before or after peak tourism season when the weather is still nice, but fewer people are traveling) is another way to capitalize on lower hotel prices thanks to supply and demand.
3. Ask about repositioning flights or cruises. Airlines use repositioning flights to move aircrafts from one airport to another, and the same applies to cruise lines, which typically reposition ships twice a year. These flights or cruises tend to be cheaper but provide services similar to traditional offerings, according to Greenberg. He suggests asking about these options on the phone.
Pat and Wayne Dunlap, who have chronicled their travels to 100 countries on Unhooknow.com, have taken five repositioning cruises, including from Miami to Barcelona and Vancouver to Japan. Repositioning cruises tend to be longer than traditional cruises, so if you're short on time, this might not be for you. However, the Dunlaps use their time at sea to relax and research the rest of their trip using the travel books they bring along. Once they arrive, they typically explore the destination and later use frequent flyer miles to return home, since repositioning cruises are one-way. Pat says they've found several cruises using the website VacationsToGo.com. "The cruises are set up by country alphabetically so look for 'R' for repositioning," she says.
4. Follow the disaster. The Dunlaps have booked some of their most affordable vacations by traveling to destinations other tourists may have ruled out because of natural disasters or political issues. Three years after the SARS outbreak in China, many American tourists were still reluctant to visit the country. But the Dunlaps visited China for a fraction of what it would normally cost because the Chinese government subsidized the trip to encourage tourism. "We investigated it and saw that it was all clear so we took advantage," Wayne says.
Last year, they visited the Greek Islands after reports of austerity in Athens scared away other tourists. "There was devastation in Athens, but the rest of the country was just fine, especially the Greek Islands," Wayne says. "We went during peak season, walked in and were negotiating rates with them."
[See: 50 Smart Money Moves.]
Greenberg says tourists should consider visiting Egypt and Haiti for these reasons. "The first thing they're going to rebuild is the infrastructure for travel and tourism," he explains. "You get to immerse yourself in a culture and not be in a crowd." Still, using common sense is key to safely executing this strategy. "If the entire country is involved in civil war, that's another story," Greenberg adds.
5. Consider alternate airports. Instead of defaulting to the closest - or biggest - airport, consider others nearby. "Let's say you're flying out of New York," says DiScala, who runs the website AlternateAirports.com to help travelers identify airport options. "Instead of typing in 'LaGuardia,' type in 'NYC,' [and] get all NYC airports including Newark and JFK. Every city has an alternate airport." If you're buying several tickets, the cost savings can really add up, he adds. Don't forget to factor in the time and cost of transportation to where you're staying to make sure an alternate airport makes the most sense.