Don't let a down economy ruin plans; use my tips, tricks, and deals on everything from airfare to vacation rentals worldwide and your foursome will travel as cheaply as one.
When the economy suffers, travel seems to be one of the first industries to take a hit and it's not long before the news wires start spreading their worry woes across the globe. Parents who once spent their holiday bonuses on the annual family vacation are now forced to stick close to home to save costs on everything from gas to food to hotels. In addition to increasing fuel prices, the past year's news has been especially brutal with excessive unemployment rates, turmoil in the Middle East, higher baggage fees, rising food costs, cancelled flights, and airline mergers.
But before you retire your swimsuits or treasured ski boots, take a look at some of our budget-saving tactics to keep your family vacation plans in check. Remember that if you're feeling the pinch of travel, everyone else probably is too. That means hotels, resorts, tour operators, and even airlines are offering new incentives to accommodate the frugal traveler and help their businesses stay afloat.
Flexibility Saves Money
Flexibility is the most important factor in finding a worthwhile travel deal, whether the economy is on an upswing or continuing its downward spiral. CheapTickets.com offers travelers the opportunity to receive year-round sales alerts. If your vacation time is already slotted for June, you'll find exactly which days are cheaper to fly, potentially saving you hundreds of dollars. Keep in mind that traveling during your destination's off-season (likely not the Christmas-New Year's week) will also result in significant savings on airfare, accommodations, and attractions.
If you already have a long-standing favorite hotel or destination in mind, sign up for travel alert newsletters the hotel or tourism board offers and religiously check for online specials. But if a specific hotel isn't as important as finding a good deal, try Priceline.com and select the quality of hotel you prefer, a location, and set your price. Keep in mind that while Priceline says it discounts up to 50%, it's usually possible to get even deeper savings. Try BetterBidding.com and find out what tactics travelers have used in their bidding before getting out your credit card.
Research Online Savings Resources
Every savvy traveler knows deep discounts run rampant online. But don't stop at checking fares on Orbitz, Expedia, and discount booking engines. Remember that there are millions of other travelers searching for discounted fares, too, and they're all swapping secrets. I always google the discount I'm looking for, and its location. Googling "Amtrak Montreal Discount" resulted in a 50% off promotional code I used during online booking. The cost was also about $400 less than airfare to the same destination. Despite the nearly 10-hour train ride, my husband and I were basking in the delight of our bargain and enjoyed the fall foliage from our train window. Amtrak (800/872-7245) also runs online fares for free companion tickets and senior and student discounts year-round.
Group Travel Saves Families Money
FTF has seen an increased trend in family reunions and multi-generational vacations over the years, making for a unique experience and opportunity for bargain travel. Consider getting a family or group of friends together to split the costs of everything from a vacation rental to food and activities. In hotly competitive Orlando, many companies offer home rentals with three to seven bedrooms that come complete with kitchens, BBQ grills, WiFi, entertainment centers, discounted rental cars and theme park tickets.
Cabin rentals are also an intimate vacation choice for families and friends. Deer Mountain Retreat (740/331-4840) in Hocking Hills, Ohio sleeps anywhere from 2 to 20 guests. You'll be hard pressed not to find a house rental in a tourist destination, so your options for amenities and space are endless. While it's true you might find a bargain at a local hotel chain, consider the additional costs and convenience. A group can take turns entertaining the children, resulting in a night out for Mom and Dad without the added expense of a babysitter. The cost of buying food in bulk for preparation in the kitchen or on the grill also saves on family meals, as well as commuting together to local attractions to save on gas. Additionally, most attractions offer group rates to 10 or more, resulting in even deeper savings.
Too much of a good thing? Plan Ahead to Avoid Family Tensions
While group travel can be a joyous occasion to gather friends and families, it can also come with its share of headaches. There's a reason Hollywood keeps churning out family reunion disaster movies, road trip mishaps, and holiday dilemmas. We've all been there, done that, and never want to go back. To combat any unnecessary stress, agree on sleeping arrangements, rental fees, food bills, cooking, entertainment, and any special needs in advance. Factor in some alone time for you or your family and participate in separate activities once in awhile to make sure everyone has enough space and time on their own.
Cheap Transport Tips: Airfares
While most seasoned budget travelers are addicted to checking the fares on all the major booking engines through all hours of the night, you can get the same result by checking around 5pm EST on weekends and up to three times a day on weekdays. All new airfares are released to a clearinghouse called the Airline Tariff Publishing Company each day, and usually appear around 2pm EST, 4:30pm EST, and midnight during weekdays. You may not realize that tickets are frequently held by passengers temporarily, then never paid for, making for a fresh inventory of seats just after fares are released.
Always find out what the airline code shares are before purchasing your tickets. Delta (800/221-1212) and Alitalia (800/223-5730) are code share partners and can set their own prices at will. You may end up spending hundreds of dollars at booking time, when the other is offering a sale on their own site. Just about every major carrier has several code share partners, and their fares aren't necessarily listed on the major travel booking or search engines. Instead, go straight to the source and save.
Cheap Transport Tips: Rental Cars & Roadtrips
Families looking for a cheap rental car can start by skipping on the extras. Adding a second driver to your rental policy can add up to $20 to your bill, but usually spouses or partners are exempt and are automatically considered a second driver. Avis, Budget, and Enterprise all subscribe to this policy, but don't expect them to volunteer the information to you. Before you book, find out if your own insurance covers a rental and save yourself the extra charge. And unless you have a large family, always book the cheapest economy car possible. These are the first models to run out, and you'll usually end up with a free upgrade to a larger, gas-guzzler. Of course if you've got squabbling teenagers with a need to draw an imaginary line between themselves and their siblings, you may need to get a roomier car. But luxury sedans are way cheaper than SUVs at rental time; trust me on this.
There are even ways to cut down on your fuel consumption when hitting the open road. Keep your speed down and don't overpack the car to keep the weight from burning up extra fuel. You can also calculate your projected road trip expenses by checking out AAA's online fuel cost calculator. I calculated a trip from New York City to Atlanta, Georgia would have a roundtrip total of 1,732 miles and a fuel cost of $358.10. Compare that to current airfare for a family of four and you'll save triple the expense.
Cheap Transport Tips: Cruises
Looking for luxury at sea? Cruise ships have slashed their fares, and the industry is abuzz with news about new and bigger ships. Families have lots of choices in discounted cabins, and third and fourth berth rates are always good value. Try booking a category-guarantee reservation with your cruise carrier. Guests receive the lowest possible fare in the best cabin available in the category they choose, often saving upwards of a thousand dollars. The drawback is that you'll only be assigned your cabin when all other rooms have been assigned, so you could risk getting pushed out of what you really wanted. But for a great deal in a specific category, you can't beat this system.
Despite all the budget saving tactics online, don't buy into the hype that the Internet is the end-all to travel discounts. Travel agents are still known to hold fares you'll never find anywhere else, and resorts and tours still advertise specials in newspapers and magazines.
Planning Budget-Friendly Overseas Travel
Now that the Euro and Pound are leveling out in relation to the Dollar, many Americans are looking across the pond as a viable travel option, especially in low season and in vacation-rental communtiies hard hit by the global mortgage crisis. But it only takes a little creative planning and ingenuity to make an overseas vacation a reality. Start by traveling during off-peak months, usually October through April. If you're going to use frequent flyer miles, book as early as possible to ensure available seats. While you can avoid booking fees by redeeming your miles online, paying just $25-$50 to speak to a live customer service rep can often prove priceless. If all seats to your destination are shown as full, a rep can alert you to alternate routes or suggest neighboring airports with seats to spare.
Eastern Europe is still a bargain compared to more popular tourist destinations including Rome, Paris, and London. Look to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania for cheap European alternatives. And while you may have always dreamed of Europe, set your sights on less expensive alternatives. South America is one of the few places where the dollar can still stretch. Thailand, Vietnam, and Morocco are also topping the cheapest overseas travel list.
Traveling by rail can prove inexpensive for students and children exploring Europe, but you should always compare costs against discount airline carries including Ryan Air, BMI, and Easy Jet. I personally found a fare from Venice to Rome on Ryan Air for under €1. Of course after fees, carryon costs, and surcharges, I was up to nearly €40, but it was still over a 50% discount compared to train travel. These no-frills, discount carriers are not for the luxury jetset crowd and you should expect charges for luggage, snacks, and almost no customer service. If you miss your flight, you're left holding the bill and flights can cancel without the offer of a free hotel room to out-of-town guests. To avoid getting stranded and prevent the sticker shock of a last minute flight on a commercial carrier, have a backup plan including a local train schedule, alternate airports, and ferry information.
International villas usually prove to be less expensive in comparison to surrounding hotels. And for children who may be restless after a day of overseas flying, they'll have more room to run and play without disturbing other guests. Economy and luxury villas can be found in nearly every part of the world and are discounted up to 50% during off peak travel. Villa and condo specialists offer seasonal comparisons, photos, year-round specials, and kid friendly amenities on destinations including England, Italy, France, Greece, St. Thomas, and Barbados among many other locales.
Free Travel can be String-Free
It's every fantasy expat's dream to luck into a free trip around the world without the heavy price. It's that dream and adventurous spirit that lead to the idea of home exchanges. Travelers save big by trading everything from house chores to bills for a few days of vacation, or even a year at a time. If you don't know where to start, the International Home Exchange Network (386/238-3633) has been assisting worldwide vacationers since 1995. Whether you're looking for a house in France or a beachside getaway in Cape Cod, you can connect with members trading information, homes, pictures, and tips with other aspiring home swappers.
If you can't quite bring yourself to hand over the keys to a stranger on the other side of the globe just yet, don't underestimate the power of word-of-mouth, especially through your social networks. Let everyone know you're looking for a home swap and watch the lines of communication open. Your friend's sister's daughter just may have a home in the mountains you've been hoping to visit. Before you go, set ground rules with your home exchange partner on everything from broken dishes to unexpected emergencies to cleaning and re-stocking the fridge.
It Doesn't Hurt to Complain
I don't encourage taking advantage of airlines and hotels by complaining without merit, but if you have an issue you'd like resolve, speak up. Or better yet, write. In either case, do it politely. Most airlines will hand over anything from airport meal coupons to travel vouchers with any articulate and substantiated complaint. I wrote American Airlines after five flights in a row either canceled or delayed and was delighted to receive a $150 voucher. US Airways also sent me a $40 voucher after complaining about continuous delays in returning my lost luggage. Make sure you include the flight number, the airline personnel's names, and the specifics of the incident. You'll have better luck if your complaints are calm, detailed, and invite the airlines to give you a reason to fly their friendly skies again.
Hotels will also respond to a rational complaint by waiving the cost of your stay. I was once promised a hot water issue would be resolved for over three hours the morning of my check-out, and finally warmed up water in a coffee maker to freshen up. The day after complaining, my charge was removed from my credit card in full. Some hotels even have a 100% satisfaction guarantee policy. Hampton Inn refunds every cent of your hotel visit if you're not completely satisfied with your experience.
Cheapskates Know Before They Go
There are plenty of free or cheap travel alternatives from camping to a whirlwind tour of your favorite city. Summer months usually bring free concerts, art walks, free museum days, and theater in the park.
Tourist boards offer year-round promotions and incentives to entice budget-wary travelers.
With the right planning, you can find out which months are the best times to travel to your destination of choice. When I traveled to Rome, my husband and I had no idea why every museum and attraction we visited was free. On the last day of our vacation, we found out it was Culture Week and everything short of the Vatican was free to the public, saving us hundreds of euros.
Deal Busters – Is it worth it?
While it's tempting to jump on the discount bandwagon at the first sign of a sale alert, tread lightly. Even if the airfare appears significantly discounted and has waived those dreaded surcharges, consider all the factors involved. Will you endure multiple layovers that require buying expensive airport meals for your entire family several times a day? Does the flight depart in the wee hours of the morning, or land late at night, resulting in a splurge on a cab or private car hire instead of using public transportation? After all things considered, you may find spending the extra $200 on airfare will result in only a minor difference of cost and offer more convenience.
And what about the airport itself? Many booking engines list multiple airports for one city, but you'll quickly learn the cheaper one is often inconvenient to your final destination. In New York, Newark Airport is frequently the cheapest airport listed for a fare, but if you're traveling all the way into Brooklyn, you'll face a costly cab ride and mounting toll charges before you're even halfway there. Make sure the cost of the savings is worth it, or find out what your public transportation options are in advance.
Hotels and house rentals are also not exempt from deal busting. You might be enticed by a popular hotel chain's offer of free pizza and soda at check-in with visions of happy kids and no cooking for Mom. Take the time to consider nearby hotel options or check Priceline.com or Hotels.com to find the deepest discounts available. The savings on a free pizza will pale in comparison to a 50% discount on your accommodations. Splurging on a quality hotel or rental that offers VIP tickets to theme parks complete with no waiting in lines may be well worth the added expense. Ultimately you'll see more of the park and less of the lines.
The Bottom Line in Cheap Vacation Planning
Once you've discovered the best way to save a bundle by air, car, or sea, save yourself valuable time. There's really no price tag for getting somewhere smoothly and safely, and without incident. Start by avoiding long lines at the airport by visiting The TSA website to find the wait time of every security checkpoint in all US airports. At the Atlanta Airport, the T-Gate security rarely has a line and I frequently sail through, then just hop on the tram to my gate and bypass hundreds of waiting passengers.
Always request a seat assignment on your flight whether you're booking travel online or speaking to the airlines directly. Otherwise, you might discover a full flight and gate agents making a mad scramble to accommodate passengers. This is especially important if you have children, as the airlines are not required to seat you together; if you have a toddler, this can be a nuisance for everyone involved. And before you head out to the airport, always print out your boarding passes from home or use the self check-in kiosks at the airport for time-saving convenience.
Parents with kids in tow know the complex nuances of packing for a family and battling it out over favorite toys and baseball card collections. Discuss the rules of your vacation in advance and allow each kid their own backpack to fill with anything they choose. Once it's full, they're done packing personal affects and must carry it on their own while Mom and Dad deal with suitcases for younger children. And if you're driving, load up the car with as much luggage as possible the evening before and keep snacks and lunch ready to go in the fridge.
For more discount travel ideas, search our archives for No-Cost Fun and Free Travel Fun columns about your favorite cities.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.