It may seem harder than ever to justify leisure travel this year. With more bad economic news surfacing nearly every day, you might be thinking of cutting your vacation budget altogether. But a vacation doesn't have to be a frivolous expense. A well-planned trip can provide much-needed rest, rejuvenation, and escape from stress—and can be done in a way that won't hurt your bottom line. Here's how to plan a vacation for 2009 in light of the new economic reality.
Reconsider Your Vacation Preferences
In the past, you may have preferred all-inclusive resorts, excursions throughout Europe, or a tour package operator that takes care of every trip detail. Before planning your trip this year, consider less-expensive alternatives and don't be afraid to leave your comfort zone. Never taken a cruise before? SmarterTravel's sister site Cruise Critic has a wide variety of deals and advice to help you find a sailing that's right for you. Or, follow the deals to a less-expensive locale rather than choosing your destination first.
If you usually rely on a tour operator to handle everything, instead reserve an afternoon and dig into the details of a trip yourself. While it may lack the convenience of having everything planned for you, you'll likely save a bundle by booking your transportation and accommodations on your own. Many providers now offer customer service options, too, so you won't be left hanging should anything go awry.
Go for Alternative Accommodations
Travelers often put too much emphasis on airfare when planning a trip while overlooking the total expense of accommodations. Hotels and resorts can charge premium prices with varying amenities that may not be included in your overnight rate. Vacation rentals, home-exchange programs, B&Bs, campgrounds, and even hostels can provide a great value with added extras such as kitchen facilities, extra space to accommodate groups (reducing the per-person price), free breakfast, or simply rock-bottom prices. (Or, in the case of a home exchange, no charge at all). If you purchase your airfare and hotel separately, looking for alternative lodging is a smart strategy.
Bundle Your Airfare and Hotel Together With a Package
Of course, it doesn't always pay to go a la carte. A few years ago, I purchased my airfare and hotel together as part of a Seattle vacation package through Travelocity, and I saved nearly $80. To determine if a package is a good deal for your upcoming trip, compare the cost of your airfare and hotel purchased individually against the latest package offerings from major travel suppliers. Be sure to conduct a true comparison—look at similar flights and hotels between both the a-la-carte and bundled offerings to determine actual costs. And don't forget to factor in all taxes and fees for both options.
Look for Deals From Local Tourism Bureaus
Once you've decided where you're going to visit, find the local convention and visitors' bureau (CVB) online and search for deals. CVBs often partner with restaurants, hotels, museums, and other attractions to provide discounts and promotions for travelers (and sometimes residents, too).
For example, Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau has a regularly updated coupon page; current offers include discounts for Argosy Cruises, 15 percent off a stay at the Holiday Inn Seattle Center, and a free coupon book for Seattle Premium Outlets, among other deals. NYC & Company, the CVB for New York City, has an offers section listing current promotions, such as two-for-one tickets to Off-Broadway shows, a third night free at luxury hotels, or 15 percent off general admission to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Check your destination's CVB to see what deals are currently available.
Another source for promos is your destination's primary newspaper. Boston.com, the website for the Boston Globe, has an updated list of current restaurant deals around town; your destination's newspaper may report similar offerings. Find the local paper's website, then look under "Arts & Entertainment", "Dining", and the like to search for deals.
Look for Rail Deals
As a college student, I spent a semester in Rome, then met up with friends and backpacked for two weeks before heading back to the U.S. Being students, we didn't have a lot of extra cash (especially at the end of the semester), but were able to travel affordably with rail passes from Vienna to Amsterdam. We purchased our passes directly from Eurail, but you can also buy them from other reputable providers such as RailEurope, RailPass.com, Rail Connection, or your travel agent.
If you're only exploring one country, you can often find a pass solely for intra-country transportation, either through the providers listed above or the country's rail service, such as BritRail, Deutsche Bahn, and Polrail. Be sure to compare point-to-point tickets (fares and schedules can easily be found online) against the pass prices to ensure you purchase the right type of tickets for your trip.
Go Where the Dollar is Strong
A few years ago, when the dollar was stronger, my parents took a trip to Quebec City. My father was thrilled to see how far the U.S. dollar went in Canada: "It was like having free money!" he exclaimed upon their return. A friend had a similar reaction after a trip to Poland two years ago—he was thrilled that most dinners for two totaled less than $40 U.S.
SmarterTravel's Christine Sarkis recently reported on eight destinations where the dollar is strong. Frommer's maintains a monthly column tracking the dollar's performance around the world; you can also find the latest worldwide exchange rates at XE.com. Typically, U.S. currency goes farthest in Central and South America, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. You may spend a lot on your airfare to get to these far-flung locales, but once in-country, you'll find exchange rates make the dollar almighty again.
If you're able to drop everything and go, traveling last-minute can be a great way to save. Recent last-minute round-trip airfares have included $150 to Washington, D.C., from Los Angeles; $200 to St. Thomas, USVI, from major East Coast cities; and $200 to Grand Cayman from New York (LaGuardia). If you haven't done so already, sign up for SmarterTravel's Last-Minute Airfares newsletter, sent out each Wednesday with the latest offerings from your home city. Also check travel providers with a last-minute focus, such as lastminute.com and LastMinuteTravel.com.
For accommodations and rental cars, sometimes all you have to do is call and ask if there's last-minute availability, and if so, if you can get a discount. This is an especially common practice with B&Bs, vacation rentals, and boutique hotels. In these cases, be sure to call the local hotel or car agency's front desk, rather than a central reservations line.
Don't Be Afraid of Opaque Sites
You should always know what you're buying before you turn over your credit card, right? Actually, in some cases, the answer is no. Using an "opaque" booking site (such as Hotwire or Priceline) can get you great deals on hotels and rental cars. If you know your travel plans aren't going to change, and if you are willing to pre-pay and enjoy a good bargain, these sites are a great resource.
I use opaque sites for rental cars, and have gotten economy rentals for as little as $10 to $12 per day. You can always search by pick-up location, car model (economy, sedan, SUV, etc.), and per-day price, and see your total with all taxes and fees included. Rentals are from reputable, nationally owned agencies.
The same goes for hotels. While you won't see the property name before you book, you can search by star ratings, user reviews, city neighborhood, amenities, and prices. Using Hotwire for a trip to Chicago, I paid just $129 per night for a four-star hotel in the Magnificent Mile, about a third of the property's usual cost. Browse the current opaque offerings for your next trip—you may be able to find a great deal.
Compare Actual Costs
There's been a lot of press around the idea of staycations of late. But taking a series of day trips close to home may not actually offer the best value. One summer when I was a child, my suburban New Jersey family of five decided to forego a traditional vacation and instead take a series of day trips. We hit a few amusement parks, ate out at restaurants, went shopping, and toured a few museums. We even headed into New York City one day to see the Statue of Liberty. By the time the week was through, my parents were shocked at the total cost of all those admission prices and meals, as well as how many times we had gassed up the car (both to get to our destination and return home each day). For what we had spent, we could have taken a real vacation—and maybe even spent a little less.
The next summer, my parents were wiser. They booked a vacation rental cabin in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains region with my aunt, uncle, and cousins. (By splitting the costs with another family, my parents already started out with savings.) We spent a week fishing, swimming, playing board games, and cooking our own meals. And my parents spent significantly less than our "affordable" day trips of the previous year.
In short, when comparing options, always take true costs into consideration. Transportation is always a big ticket item (especially airfare), but what will your in-destination costs be? Are you planning on eating most meals out, visiting lots of attractions with admission fees, and taking advantage of local boutiques, spas, and the like? Getting a real sense of what you'll spend will help you choose your right trip this year, and avoid any sticker-shock later.
In today's age of plentiful airline fees, putting together a well-packed bag will save you money. Fees for overweight bags currently range from $17 to $175, and oversized bags can set you back $29 to $150. By making sure you don't exceed size and weight limits, you won't get any surprises at the ticket counter. And nowadays, with many airlines charging just to check a bag, you can save even more by taking just a carry-on.
Are you planning on taking a budget-oriented vacation this year? Do you have any tried-and-true savings strategies? Share your best tips by submitting a comment below!
(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Cruise Critic and Hotwire.)