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Top five peak destinations: Cut costs on summer travel

SmarterTravel

You’ve heard the advice: Travel during the off season, pick your destination based on bargains, book your holiday a year in advance. But sometimes you want to see a country at its best, when the weather’s perfect and all the attractions are open. Can you still plan a vacation without spending a fortune?

The answer is yes. If you want to travel during the high season, this new series will give you advice on how to cut costs in five peak destinations each season. We’ve done some research and asked the experts for the insider scoop, and we’ll pass the knowledge we’ve acquired along to you. Whether it’s Europe in summer or the Caribbean for the winter holidays, you’ll be able to save money on your dream vacation.

Our picks for the top five peak destinations for summer are Greece, Alaska, Tahiti, Tuscany, and Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Tourists will flock to these destinations this summer, whether it’s because of special events like the Olympics, summer time off, or great weather. While you’ll still be paying high-season prices in these destinations, read on to find out how you can shave a few dollars off your transportation, accommodations, and activities costs.

Greece | Alaska | Tahiti | Tuscany | Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket

Greece

More summer vacation savings:

Top five bargain destinations for summer 2004

Top five off-peak destinations for summer 2004

Bargains will be tough to find in both Athens and the Greek Islands this summer. August is not usually high season for Athens because of the intense heat, but with the Olympics taking place there between August 13 and 29, travelers are flooding to the city to see the games. Visitors will be hard-pressed to find any accommodations in the city, let alone budget ones. The Greek islands routinely see increased tourist activity in the summer months, especially around August 15 when most Greeks take vacation or travel home for the Festival of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. This year will be no exception, especially with Athenians fleeing the city to escape the hordes of Olympic athletes and spectators.

If you must see Greece this summer and don’t have a specific destination in mind, you do have options for ways to save. Matt Barrett, author of the online Greek Travel Guide and Athens Survival Guide, says that “if someone going to Greece has heard of an island, then chances are it’s expensive.” He recommends avoiding touristy and expensive Santorini and Mykonos, and opting for less well-known islands, such as Lesvos. You can still enjoy beautiful beaches, great food, and interesting landscapes, but prices will be lower and there will be fewer crowds.

You’ll have several options for getting from the mainland to the islands, but Barrett recommends the slow, overnight ferry. At approximately $55 per person, the high-speed boats cost double what the cheapest ticket on a slow ferry costs (about $25 for a seat, no cabin), and a flight costs the equivalent of a first-class ferry cabin. Plus, you can combine lodging and transportation costs on an overnight ferry, and arrive at the island ready to explore.

Booking ferry trips is a tricky business in Greece; one slip-up and you’ll be stranded, forced to pay last-minute rates for a new hotel as well as high cancellation fees for the hotel you had reserved in your next destination. To avoid this hassle and generally find some of the best rates on your entire trip, Barrett suggests booking with a Greek travel agent. You can easily find one online; check Barrett’s website for agents he recommends. The agents can get better deals on hotel rooms than you can by booking directly, and can assume responsibility for quality of accommodations and coordinating ferry schedules and transfers.

If you absolutely must be in Athens for the Olympics, book soon because available rooms are filling up quickly. Some cheaper options (though expect high rates anywhere during the games) are staying on a nearby island and commuting to the mainland, renting an apartment with a group of travelers, chartering a sailboat, and camping. Tickets to select competitions are still on sale.

Alaska

Summer is peak travel season in Alaska because it’s the only time to go. Darkness and inhospitable weather prevent tourists from enjoying the state’s natural beauty and outdoor activities for most of the year, but Alaska comes to life between late May and September. For the best weather, travel in June, July, or August. Unfortunately, these months also boast large crowds and high prices. If you travel during the shoulder season, late May/early June and early September, you might be able to find discounts, but make sure you don’t schedule a trip before or after summer attractions are open.

A vacation in Alaska doesn’t have to break the bank, however. Low-cost airline Frontier recently began service from Denver to Anchorage, and America West will begin service from Phoenix to Anchorage on June 1. Airlines often reduce fares to promote new routes or to compete against other airlines entering a travel market, so watch out to see if these two airlines start a fare war.

Smart shoppers should also be able to find a good deal on accommodations. According to Scott McMurren, Alaska travel expert, Anchorage and Fairbanks are overbuilt, with several new hotels opening their doors this season. He claims that you can find hotels for as low as $80 per night, especially by using opaque sites, such as priceline or Hotwire. The lowest rate we found on Hotwire was $114 per night in central Anchorage for a two-star hotel in July, still a good value for this expensive city.

If you want to receive news of hotel and other discounts in your inbox, sign up for McMurren’s AlaskaTravelGram e-newsletter. You can also find specials on accommodations, cruises, and package tours at Alaska.com, though currently most of their deals expire in May.

Many travelers to Alaska want to take advantage of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for flightseeing tours, fishing expeditions, trips into Denali National Park, and glacier cruises, but none of these activities come cheap. However, if you’re traveling in a pair, you should consider purchasing the Great Alaskan Tour Saver coupon booklet. The book contains over 100 coupons with two-for-one deals, and more than 20 coupons with completely free offers. You can save on accommodations, cruises, trail rides, and flightseeing tours, among others. The book does come with a $100 price tag, but with many offers valued at over $100, you could make back your money with just one use. One of our editors said that the book is going to save her around $400 for her Alaska vacation over Labor Day weekend.

Tahiti

Save when you cruise to peak destinations:

An all-inclusive cruise can often save you money because you combine hotel, transportation, and food costs into one price; you pay in dollars, allowing you to avoid bad conversion rates; and you can often find low early-bird or last-minute fares. Our top five peak destinations all happen to be stops on various cruise itineraries, giving you another way to cut costs.

Greece: Why bother with ferry schedules when you can cruise the Mediterranean in style? You’ll find that several high-end cruise lines call in Greek ports, and many of these offer discounts if you book early.

Alaska: Alaska is this year’s hottest cruise destination. You can choose between mainstream, premium, and luxury lines, as well as round-trip, one-way, and land-and-sea itineraries.

Tahiti: Radisson and Windstar are the main lines here, but as Windstar is discontinuing its Tahiti itineraries as of 2005, check for specials on final sailings.

Tuscany: As with Greece, Mediterranean cruises stop at several Italian ports. Try Cunard, Celebrity, Holland America, and Radisson, and look for cruises with stops in Livorno, the nearest port to Florence.

Martha’s Vineyard: Holland America’s Maasdam sails New England and Canada cruises that spend a day in Martha’s Vineyard before heading up the East Coast.

Romantic Tahiti is a popular honeymoon destination, so the summer wedding season leads to plenty of tourism in these French Polynesian islands in July and August. Combine low availability with a reputation for luxurious island accommodations, and you could easily break the bank on a vacation to Bora Bora or Moorea.

But you don’t have to. Jeanne Kolander, owner of etravelbound.com and Tahiti expert, says that of the two most popular islands, you’ll spend less on a Moorea vacation than on a trip to Bora Bora. The first reason is that while you need to take an hour-long interisland flight from the airport in Tahiti to Bora Bora, you can get to Moorea in about 25 minutes via catamaran for under $25 round-trip.

Jonathan Reap from Tahiti’s Tourism Board concurs, saying that accommodations on Moorea are more reasonably priced. Plus, two hotelsÂ?Les Tipaniers and Hotel HibiscusÂ?offer rooms with kitchenettes, allowing you to cook and save money on food costs. If you really want to minimize lodging prices, try a pension. Similar to no-frills bed and breakfasts, pensions offer very basic accommodations in small bungalows or several rooms in one house. The only catch is you’ll have to book your accommodations by yourself, rather than through a tour operator.

For travelers who must stay at a luxurious resort, garden accommodations will be the lowest-priced option because they are not situated on the beach. Over-water bungalows will be the most expensive rooms. You can save up to 30 percent if you book your trip through a tour operator, who can negotiate bulk rates with airlines and resorts. Kolander adds that all Tahiti beaches are free to the public and most resorts offer their guests complimentary access to non-motorized water activities, such as outrigger canoes and sea kayaks, so you can be as relaxed or as adventurous as you want, without shelling out a single penny.

Tuscany

Italy has always been a popular summer destination, but with the abundance of films and books about Tuscany, such as Under the Tuscan Sun, catching Americans’ attention of late, Florence and the surrounding countryside are sure to be hot travel spots this summer.

We talked to Antonia Imperoli at the Italy Tourist Board to find out how to save on your own Tuscan exploration this summer. She recommends avoiding the popular towns of Florence and Siena, and opting instead for Lucca, Arezzo, or small villages such as Pistoia or Monte Merano in the Maremma region. She describes these areas as “less well known, but still charming.”

If you must go to Florence for its culture and history, try booking a vacation package, which are typically less expensive than do-it-yourself holidays. Some tourist booths in the city will sell tickets that provide entrance to several state-owned museums for one price, letting you save on admissions costs. And if you want the quintessential Italian experience of drinking a cappuccino at a café, consume your beverage while standing at the bar. The price of your drink will triple if you sit at one of the outside tables.

Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket

When the New England weather finally becomes warm, residents and visitors alike flock to the two islands off Massachusetts’ shores: Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The islands are known as the summer playground of Boston’s upper crust, and multimillion-dollar homes are a common site. Though hotel and restaurant prices are sky high in July and August, you can still find some down-to-earth deals.

To get to Nantucket, you’ll save money if you take the Steamship Authority’s ferry, which takes two hours and 15 minutes to travel from Hyannis and costs $28 round-trip per adult. Hy-Line Cruises’ high-speed ferry will get you there in an hour, but you’ll have to pay $59, over twice as much.

Vineyard visitors will save by not taking their car on the ferry: $57 one-way with a vehicle versus $6 without. If you stay in Oak Bluffs, you’ll be within walking distance to the beach and the town, making a car unnecessary. Want to see more of the island? Just rent a bike for a cheap way to enjoy the island’s scenery. For more summer fun, cheer on one of the many regattas or check out the sand sculpture contests, all for free.

Finding summer accommodations for under $150 per room per night on either island is pretty tough; you might find some deals, but you could easily end up in a shabby hotel with noisy neighbors. If you’re staying for a week, consider a vacation rental. You’ll spend upwards of $1,600 a week, which sounds expensive, but split between two families, you’ll get a great deal. Plus, with your own kitchen, you can shop at local farmers’ markets or grocery stores, and save on restaurant costs. Check the classifieds section Vineyard Gazette online for listings.

This feature is the first installment of our 2004 peak travel series. You can expect future articles on high-season travel for the fall and winter seasons. For more ways to save this summer, read our features Top five off-peak destinations for summer 2004 and Top five bargain destinations for summer 2004.

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