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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Rivan V. Stinson, Associate Online Editor
the editors of Kiplinger's Personal Finance
| June 7, 2018Updated Feb. 28, 2020
We all dream of taking that perfect solo or family vacation, but planning on a budget can be hard. It seems like airfares and hotels rates go up constantly, and a sweet price today could be gone tomorrow if you’re unsure of where (or when) you want to go.
But we can help you get good deals on all your travel plans. We asked industry insiders and travel website editors to weigh in with their top tips and smartest strategies for getting the best prices with the least hassle on airfares, cruises, hotels and vacation packages.
Fares rise and fall with air traffic — so says the law of supply and demand. In general, plan to fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday or in the afternoon on Saturday to bag a cheaper domestic flight.
Early mornings and late nights are also less popular and more affordable times to fly, as are Thanksgiving and the eves and days of Christmas and New Year’s. If you want to find the best month to take your trip, plug your home airport and getaway location into Google Flights or Kayak Explore to see the cheapest times to fly. Besides saving money, avoiding peak travel days will often mean you’ll travel on slightly less-crowded flights and go through shorter airport security lines.
You can use features available on Kayak to pinpoint on a world map all the destinations you can visit within your airfare budget. This interactive tool lets you select a departure city and time and duration of travel, then adjust a sliding scale to set a maximum ticket price. Airfares that fit into your budget will populate a map, and you can click on a destination for details. It also lets you be flexible on timing, too — you can search by month and see if certain days come with cheaper fares. (But if you need to stick with exact travel dates, you can specify your search, too.)
Sign up for free e-mail alerts from airlines or other travel sites such as Google Flights, Scott’s Cheap Flights or Airfarewatchdog to get early access to coupon codes and flash sales. Plus, getting pinged regularly with ticket prices can help you develop a point of reference to recognize good deals. Or, you can follow Twitter handles such as @TheFlightDeal for flights.
According to airfare booking site Hopper, the magical time to score the cheapest domestic flight is 45 days before departure, on average. Data from Kayak falls in line with this recommendation, finding that the best time to book a domestic flight is four to six weeks ahead of take off. International flights have a sweet spot of about 75 days in advance. As for cruises, cheap last-minute deals have dried up over the years, so you may find fare sales posted 2 to 3 years in advance according to .
Also, be sure to set a price alert on Kayak. Just enter your itinerary, and the site will keep track of price trends.
If you’re booking a last-minute flight, consider buying a vacation package. Online travel agencies lock in lower fares early and combine them with cheap hotel stays. At the eleventh hour, when airfares may spike elsewhere, these bundles may cost less than purchasing the flight alone.
You have the right to change or cancel your flight plans for free within 24 hours of booking, thanks to rules introduced by the Department of Transportation in 2012. So if you find a better fare within that window, you can snatch the savings with no penalty.
In general, carry-on bags are free with the biggest U.S. airlines, but if you fly with a certain airline you may want to open up one of its credit cards to avoid a checked bag fee. Plus, as a bonus, at least one of your travel companions on the reservation can enjoy a free bag, too. Southwest continues to allow two free checked bags.
If you’re the gambling sort, you can see if your airline announces "complimentary checked luggage" at the gate. This sometimes happens if flights are full and overhead bin space is expected to fill up quickly. But fair warning: Your bag still has to be considered carry-on size.
You may be able to squeeze an extra destination into your itinerary at no cost—or for a smidge more than what you’re already paying for your flight. Roughly 10 international airlines offer a free stopover (a break of more than 24 hours) on their home soil when you’re en route to another country, according to Airfarewatchdog.com.
For example, Icelandair lets passengers hop off in Iceland when traveling between North America and Europe. Air Canada allows breaks in three cities on routes to foreign countries. For layovers more than six hours long in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, the airline even provides you with a one-night hotel stay for free or starting at $49, depending on your ticket type. Finnair offers a to-do list while you wait in Helsinki. If you can’t find details online, call the airline to inquire about no-cost stops on your route.
Keep these ingredients in mind when shopping for a travel-friendly credit card: no foreign transaction fee, a microchip and generous rewards. The Chase Sapphire Reserve Visa ($550 annual fee) offers a chip for secure transactions. You earn 50,000 bonus miles after spending $4,000 within 90 days of opening your account. If you would rather trade significant rewards for no annual fee, consider the PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature, which is chip- and PIN-enabled.
Going off season is a particularly savvy strategy if you select a destination that’s designed for large peak-season crowds. When desperate to fill rooms, hotels will slash rates or throw in perks, such as spa credits. For example, consider business or convention hotels after the suits have departed for the weekend and beach resorts in the late spring (after spring break) or fall.
Many places offer lower rates for online booking. You can also sign up to get hotels’ e-mails about special promotions and discounts. Just remember the lowest rates are usually prepaid and non-refundable. If you think your plans might change, you’ll have to pay the higher, more flexible rates.
Don’t forget to take advantage of best-rate guarantees from hotel chains such as Hyatt and Marriott Bonvoy when booking directly. If you find a better rate on a third-party site for the same hotel and room type, Marriott Bonvoy, for example, will beat the lower rate by up to 25% or you can choose to receive 5,000 points. Orbitz offers a similar guarantee to its rewards members. After booking, if you find a better rate on another site or Orbitz.com within 24 hours of booking, the online travel agency will refund or credit you the difference. But your claim has to meet all the parameters of Orbitz’s price-guarantee checklist.
Sometimes a call can yield greater savings than booking on the web. For hotels, contact the front desk and see whether the agent can beat the online rate. Mention anything that could get you a discount, such as being a senior, a member of AAA or a government employee. If the agent won’t budge, ask for the duty manager.
"Priceline Express Deals" and Hotwire.com’s "Hot Rates" can cut up to 60% off regular hotel rates. With either site, you specify your length of stay, preferred neighborhood and a guaranteed minimum star class. But you won’t know the exact hotel or location until after you pay — a bigger risk when visiting unfamiliar areas, particularly overseas. (Blind booking works great for car rentals; a sedan is a sedan is a sedan. It’s more of a gamble for flights because you won’t know exact departure times or airlines.)
Call your hotel to confirm an online reservation — especially if you booked at the last minute — and check to see whether you’re being charged additional fees. Hotels may be willing to waive fees, especially for frequent visitors or rewards-program members. Also, request a copy of your bill the night before you check out so that you have time to dispute any extra charges that got tacked on.
Say you’re booking a hotel for a five-night stay starting on Saturday night. Check to see if the price of each night is the same as the total cost of booking the five-night stay all at once. In most cases they should be, but if not, book for individual nights and call the front desk to link your reservations. Or you can consider switching to a cheaper, comparable hotel midway through your trip.
Hotels and airlines don’t like to advertise sales because it hurts the brand. However, they’ll often package a trip to disguise the discount. Online travel agencies (think Travelocity) are well known for their bundled bargains. But don’t forget to check packages offered directly by airlines, such as United Vacations and Southwest Vacations, as well as smaller travel operators such as Apple Vacations and Gate 1 Travel. Daily deal sites have gotten in on the act, too, with Groupon Getaways and LivingSocial Escapes.
Seek all-inclusive deals to pay just once for your whole vacation — including lodging, food, drinks and activities — and make it easier to stay within your budget, especially if you’re traveling with children. As the peak summer season cools off, beach resorts should get more generous with their perks.
Or, you can price it a la carte to see if a package makes sense.
Cruise lines offer the most enticing deals for travel from June 1 to November 30, which is hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean. Demand is low because of the risk of storms, but ships can generally circumvent the worst of the bad weather. If your cruise is canceled (which rarely happens), you’ll receive a refund or credit toward a future cruise. Check out Cruise Critic’s "Hurricane Zone," which provides storm updates and links to hurricane-season deals.
Warning: the cruise company won’t reimburse you if rerouting delays force you to shell out for extra hotel nights or other itinerary changes. You may want cover your bases by booking travel insurance through a third-party provider, such as Squaremouth.
Especially for first-timers, cruises can prove more complicated than your standard trip by air or land. A good cruise agent can help you avoid any costly booking snafus, as well as score you solid deals, cabin upgrades and other extras. At CruiseCompete.com, submit your cruise preferences, and the site will relay your request to a variety of travel agents, who will then make you their best offers.
But beware of upselling: Agents typically receive a commission from the cruise line, so it’s in their best interest if you book a cruise bundle that includes airfare and hotel. Think twice — and check flights and hotels on your own — before purchasing one.
Cruise lines are known to nickel-and-dime passengers. So if you’re looking for a less expensive but still relaxing trip, consider a river cruise. Most ships bundle wine and beer and shore activities into the price, whereas mainstream cruises charge extra. Plus, you’ll typically get a more intimate experience with a smaller group of passengers.
Ships need to take these one-way voyages in order to relocate for the season. For example, ships that cruise near Alaska in the summer head south once fall arrives. And cruise lines invite passengers aboard for the ride at deeply discounted rates. Look to Cruisecritic.com for current information on repositioning cruises.