The always-lovely Sheryl from Paper Napkin writes:
Okay Mir, I have a question for you. Everyone is planning their summer vacation, where are the best places online to hunt for tickets and hotels, and how do you find some good bargains to make the most of your vacation money?
There’s nothing like a question with about seven billion different answers to start off the day! Well. I’ve got my cup of coffee, and hopefully you have yours (and about an hour). Also, I’m going to have to upgrade the usual advice-giving shaker-of-salt to a 10-pound sack of salt on this one: My idea of a vacation is driving back to my hometown and mooching off of my parents for a few days. I’m pretty sure they’re not accepting random guests, though, so let’s look at some other options for the rest of you.
First things first: Buy an Entertainment Book, do not pass Go, do not collect $200 (or travel plans) until you’ve done so. Check out their website to see all of the travel-related goodies contained within. Yes, it’s coupons. This is probably the only time I will pump my fist in the air and insist you do the coupon thing. You don’t have to carry the book around 24/7 and start paging through for your Denny’s coupons when you’re hungry, or anything, but if you’re going to travel, get one.
Let’s assume that you know where you want to go, and how, and when. Like everyone else in the free world, I’ve been using Expedia, Travelocity, and CheapTickets for years. And by “using” I mean that I need plane tickets, I hop online and search these sites, and then I go rock in the corner and cry because HOLY COW if these are the cheap tickets, I am really never going to see the Grand Canyon.
My father recently turned me on to Travelzoo, and I’ve also played around a bit with SideStep and Kayak. All three of these sites caused information overload and my head exploded after about five minutes, but I’m easily overstimulated. Travelzoo wins for the best overview of all hot deals, and the other two search a million sites (including JetBlue and SouthWest, which are typically excluded from “discount” sites) and have a very cool left sidebar view where you can adjust every possible option like price, airport (they automatically include nearby airports to look for better deals), time of day, airline, and whether or not the flight attendants are uppity.
So. There’s that. Do you have credit cards? Call customer service or poke around on their website a bit; most major credit cards offer travel discounts of one kind or another to their members. For example, I know Discover is constantly trying to convince me to rent a car with their special rate. But they also want me to buy their “we pay your credit card bill if you die” insurance, and I expect my kids will have bigger issues than my $200 Discover bill if I get hit by a bus, so I remain skeptical.
Are you member of AAA? They offer travel discounts. Honestly, every association under the sun wants to offer you bennies these days, so that maybe you won’t notice how much of your money they’re taking. Most offer travel discounts. Do a quick mental check and see if you belong anywhere that might entitle you to a price break.
Have you checked out eBay? People sell tranferrable airline tickets, discount vouchers, vacation rentals, tour packages, leftover Disney Dollars… heck, just about everything. Do NOT go browse if you don’t know what you want; your eyeballs will pop and ooze out of your head and drip down and make your keyboard all sticky. But if you know what you’re looking for, you may find a deal there. Just remember to use your eBay common sense—only buy from established sellers with excellent feedback (I require 95% positive or above to soothe my paranoia), only buy items that are clearly legal/transferrable, pay via Paypal so that you have buyer protection, purchase far enough in advance that you’re not at the whim of some dude in Kentucky as to whether your stuff will arrive in time.
When it comes to hotels, you’ll find that many of the above travel sites are useful (particularly if you’re also booking air travel). If you’re travelling with kids, consider a hotel where kids eat free or where breakfast is included.
Now, what if you’re not entirely sure how/where/when you want to vacation? You need to sit down and decide how far you’re willing to go to save some money.
For example, camping is cheaper than getting a hotel… but if you hate to camp, don’t commit yourself to misery just because you want to be frugal. (I have a question in the queue about camping gear, by the way, so sit tight for that one!) On the other hand, if you’ve never camped before, consider it. There are multiple levels of “roughing it” and many aren’t nearly as rough as you might think. Plus there is no better way to give yourself license to eat your weight in roasted marshmallows.
Another example: Depending on where you’re going and for how long, a cabin or condo rental may be cheaper than a hotel. Or it may appear to be about the same cost, but it gives you a kitchen, and thus, the ability to cook instead of eating out—voila, instant savings. Not to mention that few families can afford multiple hotel rooms, whereas a rental gives you the luxury of tucking the children away when they’re too cranky to be endured.
You probably already know that it’s cheaper to travel off-peak; and while the entire Summer is a peak travel time, it’s always going to be cheaper to set sail the third week of June than it is on 4th of July weekend. It’s also always going to be expensive to go to Disney (although if you search the ‘net you’ll find a thousand ways to do it as cheaply as possible, which is to say that instead of costing a bazillion dollars, it might only cost you Junior’s college fund) or other high-voltage tourist destinations. Up for something off the beaten path? Check out Roadside America for some ideas.
Consider a trip not too far from home. This has the advantage of being cheaper just in getting there, of course, and if there are tourist attractions not too far away, there may be ways to get discounted admissions from local sources before you leave. (For example, my library has vouchers for free/discount admission to many Boston museums even though Boston is hardly right down the street.)
One more thing—in the month or so leading up to your vacation, pick some ways to increase your spending money for the trip itself. If you skip your morning Starbucks run, put $5 into the souvenir fund. Rent a movie instead of taking the family to the theatre, and tuck away the difference. Just a few things like that can make the difference between an okay trip with constant worried glances into the wallet and the trip where you get to go out to that really good restaurant. And you want to be able to indulge while you’re gone, not feel like every penny went to the act of getting there. Besides, you probably have an Entertainment coupon for that restaurant.