Domestic airfares down 10 to 15 percent from a few years back. Transatlantic peak-summer round-trips are hundreds less than last year. Hawaiian hotel rates down 15 to 50 percent. Discounts and twofers in Orlando. Big-name golf resorts for less than $100 a day per room. Big sales every week or so. In all the years I’ve been covering travel—rather more than I sometimes like to count—I’ve never seen such a buyers’ market. Of course, there’s a good reason: Business travel expenditures are down 10 to 20 percent and many would-be leisure travelers are staying home. If you still have a few bucks left you can put them to very good use.
But all of the promotions leave lots of travelers unsure about how to find their best deals. I get lots and lots of “is this a good deal?” and “should I buy now?” questions. In response, here are eight suggestions I’ve developed for gaming the buyers’ market.
1. Keep on Top of the Market
Many of the best deals come and go almost too quickly for you to spot them. I recently saw one 30-percent-off systemwide big-chain hotel promotion available to buy for just a single day, and lots of them are for sale for only a few days or weeks. Typically, they cover travel for several months ahead, but the buying window can be extremely short. Too short, in fact, for you to catch them in print media or even on TV. Your best bet for keeping on top of market developments is to sign on for a few e-mail travel “sale” bulletins. We at SmarterTravel issue several; among the other useful ones are those posted by (Arthur Frommer’s) BudgetTravel, DealBase, TravelZoo, Online Vacation Center, and many of the big online agencies. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time screening reports, get a good travel agent to do it for you and alert you whenever something special comes into the agency.
2. Flexibility, Flexibility, Flexibility
Yes, I know; that old “location” chestnut about real estate is really a tautology, but in travel, flexibility, always important, is now critical to getting the very best deals. You don’t need to be completely flexible or have absolutely no preferences, but you should be flexible in at least one of the three main parameters of your vacation: date, destination, or type of vacation you want.
3. Look Up, Not Down
Your best bets for deals are from midprice and upscale suppliers. It’s simple: Suppliers that charge the highest prices have the most room to cut their prices. You can’t really expect a half-price deal on a room at Motel 6, for example, but you can at a ritzy—but hungry—four-star resort. Fancy hotels—especially those that cater to business travel—are dealing, as are many upscale resorts and rental “villas.” With hotels and resorts, buying through Hotwire or Priceline can often get you a 4-star room at 1- or 2-star prices. You can even score big discounts on business class air, although, even if you get half off, the fares are still a lot higher than the cheapest economy rates. Business travel is in the toilet, so if you have lots of miles, this might be a good time to use them for a business or first class ticket.
4. Take the Cash and Let the Credits Go
Rather than cut prices, some airlines and hotels are offering “generous” mileage or point bonuses. Although those might be enticing, remember that a mile is worth about one cent, and that those miles will continue to be tough to use for economy class awards as airlines cut down on flights. Similarly, some hotels, resorts, and cruiselines try to generate business by throwing in “value added” extras instead of cutting the price. Often, those claims of big “savings” are based on the retail value of all those extras rather than a true price cut. If you’d really use the extras, fine, but in my experience, many travelers would actually use only a few of them. You can’t beat an actual price cut.
5. Compare, Compare, Compare
Buy a package or book the components separately? Take the included “free” air with the cruise or book airfare and cruise separately? Take a twofer or buy two separate tickets? There’s no set answer: You have to compare each instance. Packages are often your best bet, but not always. Twofers can be good deals, but not if they’re based on an inflated list price. Price each of the components separately and compare the total with the package price. And price only the components you’d actually use, not all those that the supplier might throw into the mix.
6. Maybe Bargain a Little
You generally can’t bargain with an airline, but hotels, resorts, and cruiselines will sometimes deal. Usually, you can more easily wrangle an upgrade to a better room or cabin than an outright price cut. But buying in at a low price and upgrading can sometimes be less expensive than buying in at the top from the start. And if you do bargain your way up, get the agreement in writing: I’ve heard from several readers who were promised upgrades that didn’t materialize.
7. Hold Your Fire …
“Sale” prices and last-minute prices are still the lowest. Unless you’re planning on a peak-season visit to a top-10 destination—Hawaii over Christmas, for example—you’re usually better off waiting to book most trips until a few months before you plan to go. This year, even vacation rentals are offering last-minute deals. Some resorts and cruiselines try to lure you into buying early with “guarantees” that if they subsequently drop their asking price, they’ll drop your price. That can be OK, but if that price “reduction” is in the form of a voucher or a credit rather than an actual cut in what you pay, you may never realize the amount. Also, some last-minute reductions may be sold through discount outlets and not qualify for the supplier’s official-price guarantee.
8. … But Be Ready to Pounce
Holding for a good last-minute deal is fine, but once you see a really good deal, act on it. Waiting for a still better deal—that may or may not materialize—can often lead to paying a lot more. The perfect is the enemy of the good; what you want is a good deal, not necessarily the best-ever deal.
(Editor’s Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Hotwire.)