The Deal Detective is SmarterTravel's resident bargain hunter, Kate Hamman. She's always on the lookout for new travel deals and invites you, dear reader, to submit your own questions.
james3 writes, "Hello, I am looking for a vacation in February for my wife and myself and need to keep the total cost of flight and hotel stay at $800. We live in Los Angeles. We are open to going to Mexico, Caribbean, Hawaii, Arizona, Florida or New York. Do you have any thoughts? Thank you!"
This kind of question would typically fill my heart with glee—an open destination with a set budget and departure city—but I am hesitant to jump for joy just yet. The criteria is a perfect set-up: Leaving from Los Angeles offers many excellent options of places to go at discounted prices, the travel dates fall in low season for most places, and $800 should be enough money to get you there. Well, $800 should be enough money for one person, but we're talking about two people. So, we actually have $400 to spend on a vacation that includes airfare and hotel. This is where my heart stops dancing and becomes a bit heavy, but it's also an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson when it comes to flexibility and budgeting.
It's often the case that we have an idea of what we want before we've started our research. And it's always wise to know when you want to go and how much you want to spend, but a little bit of leeway goes far when planning a trip. And in this case, it might be vital to change the travel dates, budget, or destination to find the vacation that's a perfect fit.
The price of airfare alone will take up more than half, if not all, of your budget. I priced round-trip airfare to New York City—which should be one of the cheaper destinations to fly to from Los Angeles—starting at $303 per person (without taxes and fees), which leaves $97 per person for lodging. As many of us know, $97 isn't a lot of money for a room in Manhattan, but you can save by staying outside of the city. Expedia is offering rooms starting at $52 per night per person (without taxes and fees), meaning you could almost stay for two nights on your budget.
Vacation packages can be a great alternative when trying to save cash. For instance, four-night airfare-and-hotel packages to the Big Apple in February start at about $687 per person (without taxes and fees) with Southwest Vacations. This obviously exceeds your initial price, but it's a good option to keep in mind in case you decide to spend a little extra cash.
Your budget also isn't enough to afford tropical destinations such as the Caribbean, Hawaii, or Mexico. However, it's possible to find good airfare deals to Hawaii from Los Angeles, but it's still a tall order for your time period. February is when many people are escaping to warmer destinations, which can raise the cost of packages to these locales. I was able to find a deal to Oahu with Pleasant Holidays that starts at $399 per person (without taxes and fees), and includes round-trip airfare and three-nights' accommodations. However, the offer is only good for travel between January 9 and 29.
Now, before you decide to give up and plan a staycation in your own backyard, there are a few options: You can spend a little extra cash to go to one of your chosen destinations; you can change the dates of your trip to take advantage of a deal only offered at a specific time; or you can let the price choose your destination for you.
The last option allows you to go when you want and spend what you want. For instance, you didn't mention Las Vegas as one of your options, but a four-night package with Southwest Vacations, including round-trip airfare and accommodations at the Luxor, starts at $344 per person (with taxes and fees) in February. This deal also comes in below budget, so you actually end up with a little extra cash.
Whenever you set out to plan a trip, keep in mind what you are willing to sacrifice or change. This is the key to finding the best vacation, and I'm going to share some trade secrets to help you make the best choice on what stays and what goes.
Start your research by comparing airfares to your chosen destinations at your desired times. This will give you a price point when reviewing your budget. Knowing how much transportation will cost helps when deciding if you should book air and hotel separately or if you should combine them with a vacation package.
Search for bundled packages from providers like go-today.com, Pleasant Holidays, and United Vacations for the location and times you want. If you can't find a deal that fits within your budget, search for other dates. If you can't change your dates, try looking for prices that you may be able to swing. If you can't change your dates or budget, look for other destinations that may offer specials from your departure cities.
I wish I could have given you a list of deals that were perfect matches for your dates, budget, and destinations, but sometimes planning a trip isn't that easy. I urge you to become your own Deal Detective and start sleuthing yourself. Remember, a little flexibility will make it that much easier to plan an ideal vacation for you and your wife.
To all my other readers: What would you sacrifice in the name of a vacation? How do you typically go about booking a trip? And do you have any suggestions for james3 on where he should go for his budget and travel dates? Let us know what you think by submitting a comment below.
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All prices, dates, and booking details listed here were valid at the time of publication. Some information may have changed since that time.