Everyone loves alittle time away for some R&R but with this tough economy, it's hard to justify shelling out hard earned cash for a vacay. But if you're itching to get away and want to make it feasible to do within your budget, try these 9 smart strategies for a less costly summer vacation.
Lift off from a smaller airport: You can reap significant savings if you’re willing to put up with a bit of inconvenience. Often you can snag a better deal on airline tickets if you bypass the majors and fly out of a regional airport instead. For example, at press time, Real Simple magazine found that it was $50 cheaper to fly to New York City from the Akron-Canton Airport than from the Cleveland hub. Use the search feature on the easy-to-navigate Kayak.com to compare airfares near you. But bear in mind: Given the high, and rising, prices at the pump, the cost of driving to a more remote airport could wipe out some of your savings. Go to fuelcostcalculator.com, run by AAA, to estimate your outlay on gasoline.
Check bags for $0: Baggage fees have become a massive profit center for airlines: In 2010 the industry raked in more than $2.5 billion in these charges. But two airlines still let you check bags for free: JetBlue Airways allows one bag per passenger; Southwest Airlines permits two. Fly on them whenever possible and you’ll save $50 or more round-trip per passenger. If those airlines don’t suit your plans, sign up for a credit card with travel perks: Delta Airlines waives one baggage fee per flight for customers who use its American Express SkyMiles credit card, and Continental Airlines allows two free checked bags per traveler when the flight is booked on its Chase Presidential Plus card.
Find hidden hotel freebies: Room prices are down from their peak - averaging $99 a night as of this past February, compared with a high of $109 a night in 2008, according to the data firm STR. But à la carte fees, for everything from Internet access (about $10 to $15 daily) to parking (about $20 a night or more), can cause sticker shock when it’s time to pay the bill. Go to priceline.com/freebies to search for hotels that provide guests with complimentary breakfast, parking, or credits toward spa treatments or rounds of golf. And check out wififreespot.com, which lists hotel chains, such as Homewood Suites by Hilton and Hyatt Place, that offer Wi-Fi on the house.
Cruise from a port closer to home: Until a few years ago, many vacationers had to fly to Miami or Orlando to hop on a cruise. No longer: Several companies, including Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International, now set sail from ports located near large population centers around the country, such as New York City; Seattle; Galveston, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina; and Baltimore. And if you live near one of those locations, that can save you a bundle. Case in point: As of mid-April, taking a Carnival Cruise Lines trip directly from Charleston to the Bahamas cost $569 less than flying from Charleston to Miami, staying one night in a hotel, and departing the next day. The only drawback? It takes longer for the ship to reach the destination, so you spend more time on the boat.
Get the cheapest possible set of wheels: Prices for loaner vehicles fluctuate constantly, but not many travelers take the time to recheck rates after booking, even though there’s no fee to cancel or change a reservation with any major car-rental company. To make this task easier, book with autoslash.com, a site that continues to check prices (on both domestic and foreign reservations) until your pickup date. If it finds a lower rate, you are automatically re-booked for free, and the new confirmation details are sent to your in-box. For a recent week-long car rental in Los Angeles that originally cost $227, AutoSlash re-booked the reservation twice, reducing the price by $19. It also offered a free upgrade from a compact to a mid-size car.
Use Bing's Price Predictor: Who hasn’t read about a major fare sale the day after putting down a nonrefundable deposit on a reservation? (Ouch.) Bing.com/travel helps you decide when to pull the trigger. After you put in your desired flight itinerary, the site tells you whether to buy your ticket now or to wait, based on historical fare data and price trends. (The site claims to have about a 75% accuracy rate, which independent experts don’t dispute.) You can use Bing’s “rate indicator” to shop for hotel rooms, too. It tells you whether a current price is a “deal,” an “average rate,” or “not a deal.”
Follow Twitter sales: Twitter has become the place for travel companies to announce sales that seem too good to be true—but aren’t. Followers get first dibs on fare cuts before they go viral on the Web. The specials are often for last-minute getaways. A recent one advertised tickets on Spirit Airlines (@SpiritAirlines) from Washington, D.C., to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for just $54 each way. JetBlue Airways (@JetBlueCheeps) also offers noteworthy deals. The boutique-hotel specialist Quikbook (@Quikbook) is another good source, informing followers of discounts of up to 40% at independent hotels in major U.S. cities, such as the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles and Chicago’s Peninsula Hotel.
Look for overseas discount carriers: Flights by low-cost foreign airlines (such as EasyJet, based in the United Kingdom) don’t show up on Expedia.com or Orbitz.com. But you can still take advantage of their rock-bottom prices: Book a ticket to a hub like Paris or Rome on a major carrier, then use Skyscanner.com or Momondo.com to reserve seats on a low-fare airline if you’re headed to a smaller city, like Copenhagen or Nice. These tickets can be ridiculously cheap, sometimes less than $20 one way, according to Pauline Frommer, the creator of the Pauline Frommer Guides travel books.
Don't get dinged by credit card fees: Many banks add a 3% foreign-transaction surcharge to the total cost of your purchase when you use a credit card abroad. But you can find ways around this charge by signing up for a credit card that waives the fee. Capital One does not assess the fee on any of its cards, and American Express has dropped the fee on its Platinum card. Citi has followed suit on its Thank You Premier and Prestige lines, and Chase waives it on cards issued with British Airways, Hyatt, Continental Airlines, and United Airlines, among others. You might also avoid ATM charges by calling your bank before you travel and asking if it has any financial partners at your destination.