Getting a good deal on travel comes down to planning or dumb luck. You can cross your fingers and hope for the best, or do the research and get the trip you want.
The further out you know your travel schedule, the more time you'll have to watch airfares and lodging rates. Be patient -- but not too patient. If you've been researching for a while and a good price pops up, jump on it. It might be gone in a half-hour.
Find those online dealsLow fares do seem elusive. Making your reservations online is the most efficient and cost-effective method, but the days of simply checking Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia are over. Travel search engines such as Kayak and Mobissimo also warrant a look. In addition, Microsoft's Bing has a travel section that lets you search for deals on flights, hotels, rental cars and more. (Microsoft is the publisher of MSN Money.)
In addition, try these tips:
- If you want real-world advice, check TripAdvisor and TripConnect. Their online communities can offer feedback on your plans. (See "Find the cheapest airfare deals.")
- Nothing's worth less than an empty seat just before boarding. You can find last-minute deals at MSN Travel or sites such as Hotwire.com.
- If you're booking well ahead of time and are unsure whether to plunk down your credit card now or wait, Farecast offers predictions of which way fares to your destination are headed.
- Airlines generally reload their computers at midnight, so shortly after that is a good time to shop for seats that might have been reserved but not paid for.
- Make your reservations though an airline's Web site to avoid booking fees of $5-$25. (See "Avoid these 7 nasty airline fees.")
- Check that your ticket price includes taxes and fees, which can bump up a ticket price by $100 or more. (See "8 tips to snag the lowest fare.")
- If your schedule is loose, you can try to get "bumped" to earn a free flight or other comps. For instance, book yourself during a peak time or on the last flight of the day. (See "How to win the airline bumping game")
Where to lay your headNext to airfare, lodging is the next biggest travel concern. If you're a leisurely traveler, it's fine to take your chances. For the rest of us, having a solid reservation eases some stress.
- Skip a hotel's toll-free reservations line and negotiate directly with the hotel.
- Don't settle for the first rate you're offered. Inquire about corporate, military or other special rates and let the hotel know if the price you've been quoted is still too high. (See "How to get a better hotel deal.")
- Select a hotel just outside a major city. Rates tend to be cheaper, but you're close enough to get into the city when you want to.
- Consider the obvious regarding timing and adapt your stay. Resorts are busiest on weekends, but downtown hotels aren't.
- Ask whether parking is free. At $10 a day for parking, the cost adds up fast.
- A well-located but more expensive hotel could remove your need for a car rental.
- Try staying at a bed-and-breakfast inn, especially at international destinations, where they can be cheaper than hotels. Or consider a hostel.
In the driver's seat (literally)Like finding a low airfare, landing a rental-car deal is no small feat. It's typically cheaper to rent online than to phone or walk in, however, so again, do your homework. If you're heading for international locations or big U.S. cities, consider whether you need a car at all. For a fraction of the cost of driving and parking, you may be able to use public transportation or take taxis. If you decide to drive, consider these suggestions:
- Don't limit your search. Start with the major travel sites (see above), then check the rental companies' sites for specials. Once you've booked, check back periodically to see if you can get a better deal. (See "Steer clear of these 5 car-rental traps.")
- Don't forget to figure in taxes. Government-mandated charges can make up 20% to 40% of the total bill.
- Review your auto-insurance policy and your credit card's benefit guide to see if you're covered in an accident with a rental car. Take the time to circle the car and look over the interior before you drive off and note any scratches, dents or stains, to avoid getting billed for someone else's damage.
Now you're travelingOnce you're happy with your itinerary, take time to think about the details:
- At your destination, walk anywhere that would take 30 minutes or less. You can sample the local cuisine with less guilt and save money, too.
- For meals on vacation, decide what is important to you and spend your money on those things. If breakfast is not a big deal, stop at a grocery for bagels or fruit. Why spend $15 or more on a breakfast buffet when what you really want is fresh lobster for dinner?
- Do we really need to tell you to avoid the hotel minibar? Electronic sensors at some hotels now automatically bill your room even if you, or one of your children, simply picks up an $8 bottle of water and puts it down. Assuming it's the old-fashioned kind, you can try replacing cheaply the next day what you couldn't resist the night before.
- Pack some snacks as well as a book or MP3 player in your carry-on luggage. If you run into delays, you can still be comfortable while you wait. Headphones are also a great way of warding off bores sitting next to you in flight.
Updated April 22, 2009