It's a good year for U.S. travelers to venture abroad. The strong dollar helps stretch your travel budget, making train tickets, hotels and restaurants in many destinations around the world more affordable. Just don't expect similar bargains on plane tickets. Low fuel prices haven't lowered the cost of airfares. Consolidation in the airline industry and decreased competition mean bargain prices are harder to come by.
But we can help you get good deals on all your travel plans. We asked industry insiders and travel Web site editors to weigh in with their top tips and smartest strategies for getting the best prices with the least hassle on airfares, cruises, hotels and vacation packages.
Secrets to Save on: Hotels | Vacation Packages | Cruises
1) Fly when no one else wants to. Fares rise and fall with air traffic — so says the law of supply and demand. In general, plan to fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday or in the afternoon on Saturday to bag a cheaper domestic flight.
Early mornings and late nights are also less popular and more affordable times to fly, as are Thanksgiving and the eves and days of Christmas and New Year's. If you want to find the best month to take your trip, plug your home airport and getaway location into Hotwire.com's TripStarter tool to see the cheapest times to fly. Besides saving money, avoiding peak travel days will often mean you'll travel on less-crowded flights and go through shorter airport security lines.
2) Be flexible about where you go. You can use Kayak's Explore tool to pinpoint on a world map all the destinations you can visit within your airfare budget. This interactive tool lets you select a departure city and month or season of travel, then adjust a sliding scale to set a maximum ticket price. Airfares that fit into your budget will populate a map, and you can click on a city for details. Google Flights has a similar feature, and you can browse by precise dates. Select "expand map," enter your travel dates, choose a price limit, and airfares that fit will pop up. Click on a city for a bar graph displaying fares for other date combinations.
3) Sign up for free e-mail alerts from airlines or other travel sites such as Airfarewatchdog or follow them on social media. You can get early access to coupon codes and flash sales, which can reduce a round-trip fare that's typically $1,200 to $1,800 down to $700, says George Hobica, president of Airfarewatchdog. Plus, getting pinged regularly with ticket prices can help you develop a point of reference to recognize good deals.
4) Make sure you're buying your tickets at the right time. According to airfare booking site CheapAir, the magical time to score the cheapest domestic flight is 47 days before departure, on average. Data from Kayak falls in line with this recommendation, finding that the best time to book a domestic flight is four to six weeks ahead of take off. Optimal booking days for international trips vary, from two to four weeks in advance to head to the Caribbean to six months before leaving for Europe, according to Kayak. Also, be sure to check out Kayak's price-predicting tool. Just enter your itinerary, and the site will return a list of fares with a recommendation to either buy now — because it expects the fare to rise — or wait for a soon-to-come fare drop.
5) If you're booking a last-minute flight, consider buying a vacation package. Online travel agencies lock in lower fares early and combine them with cheap hotel stays. At the eleventh hour, when fares may spike elsewhere, these bundles may cost less than purchasing the flight alone.
6) Keep an eye on fares, even after you book. You have the right to change or cancel your flight plans for free within 24 hours of booking, thanks to rules introduced by the Department of Transportation in 2012. So if you find a better fare within that window, you can snatch the savings with no penalty.
After 24 hours, if you find your booked fare has dropped, some airlines may be willing to refund you the difference. Use Yapta.com to track any price changes on nine major airlines. Most airlines charge change fees, but Yapta takes those into account and notifies you only if a price drop exceeds that fee. Then the site guides you through the process of contacting the airline to get your voucher.
7) Avoid the extra baggage fees that most airlines charge. Southwest continues to allow two free checked bags; JetBlue permits one (though the airline has announced that it will introduce a new checked-bag fee structure in 2015). See SmarterTravel for a comprehensive list of fees from 13 major U.S. airlines. And weigh the costs of carrying luggage versus shipping it — see KIP TIP: Save Money By Shipping Your Luggage.
8) Add a free destination. You may be able to squeeze an extra destination into your itinerary at no cost—or for a smidge more than what you're already paying for your flight. Some airlines offer a free stopover (a break of more than 24 hours) in their hub cities en route to another country. Find these deals under "special offers" or by searching "stopover" on the airline's Web site.
For example, Icelandair lets passengers hop off in Iceland when traveling between North America and Europe. Air Canada allows breaks in three cities on routes to foreign countries. For layovers more than six hours long in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, the airline even provides you with a one-night hotel stay for free or starting at $49, depending on your ticket type. Singapore Airlines and Turkish Airlines offer similar deals including lodging. If you can't find details online, call the airline to inquire about no-cost stops on your route.
9) Get a travel rewards card. Keep these ingredients in mind when shopping for a travel-friendly credit card: no foreign transaction fee, a microchip and generous rewards. Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard ($89 annual fee, waived the first year) offers a chip along with extra-secure PIN capability. You earn 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 within 90 days of opening your account. If you would rather trade significant rewards for no annual fee, consider the PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature, which is also chip- and PIN-enabled.