These days, airlines, hotel chains, and other travel businesses are struggling to attract customers, so opportunities to travel cheaply abound for those who know how to search for deals. Here are our best tips:
The slightest alterations to your vacation plans can yield big savings, so it pays to price a variety of flights. Departing very early or very late in the day can mean a much lower airfare, as can flying on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Sundays are the costliest for domestic flights; Saturdays for international travel. Using a nearby or suburban airport can also save you a lot. Being flexible applies to hotels as well, particularly at those that host business travelers during the week.
Start your airfare shopping with a travel search engine such as Kayak or at a large travel-agency site such as Expedia, Orbitz, or Travelocity. But always check the carriers' own sites as well, because they often offer fares found only there. In fact, some tickets for low-fare airlines such as Southwest and JetBlue are not available at the major travel sites. Buying directly from the airline also eliminates the transaction fees charged by third-party sites, which can range from $5 to $12.
Flights between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. are by far the most likely to arrive on time. The most punctual domestic airlines in recent months have been Hawaiian and Southwest; the least punctual, American and United. If arriving on time is critical, fly nonstop and consider less-crowded airports. For more details on the carriers, check out the Department of Transportation's monthly Air Travel Consumer Report.
With so many airlines now charging $15 and up for checked bags, it's more important than ever to pack only what you'll really need. Maybe you'll be able to get by with just a carry-on. Because rules change, check the "For Travelers" section of the Transportation Security Administration's Web site.
Average room rates have been falling in vacation spots such as Orlando, Fla., and the Caribbean. Bad news for hoteliers can be good news for you, so skip Web sites and toll-free lines and contact the property directly. Because many hotels are independently owned or managed, you might have more bargaining power. (Just don't call in the morning, when guests are checking out.) Haggle for a lower room rate and ask for complimentary breakfast, gym access, or parking. Follow up by e-mail, so you have written confirmation.
Certain vacations are too important or too complicated to arrange yourself. Most cruises fall into this category. The travel agent should be allied with an organization such as the American Society of Travel Agents, the Association of Retail Travel Agents, or the Cruise Lines International Association. So there's full disclosure, ask whether your agent is involved in any preferred-supplier agreements, which are bonus commission programs that reward agents for pushing certain products. Also, most agencies charge fees, though some might be rebated after you book.
Technology now allows passengers to contact home directly from many cruise ships, but the cost of phoning, faxing, or even e-mailing can be steep. Phoning or sending e-mail from shore is usually the cheapest way to communicate. CruiseCritic.com has extensive listings of ports of call around the world.
Your rental might be covered by your own auto insurance or through coverage provided by your credit-card company. Research that before the rental agent tries to hard-sell you a collision-damage waiver, loss-damage waiver, or other products. But never assume that a U.S. policy automatically covers you when you rent a car in other countries.
The Fair Credit Billing Act allows you to dispute any discrepancies and limits your responsibility to $50 for unauthorized credit-card charges. Debit cards, personal checks, and cash don't offer such protection. And the DOT recommends that you file a claim with your charge-card company if you booked a seat on an airline that went bankrupt and you haven't received compensation.
Many discounts are offered to seniors, children, students, military personnel, government workers, and members of organizations such as AAA and AARP. But it's up to you to ask.