With airfares to Europe and Asia sky-high and high-seas breakdowns roiling the cruise industry, leisure travelers have plenty of reasons to put vacation plans on hold. But no need to restrain your wanderlust. We asked industry insiders and travel Web site editors to weigh in with their top tips and smartest strategies for getting good deals — without the nightmare scenarios — on airfares, cruises, hotels and vacation packages. Whether you're on the prowl for a luxury resort that courts you with freebies or just want to qualify for priority boarding, you can use this advice to claim all the perks and conveniences typically reserved for the savviest travelers. Bonus: We also asked the experts for their favorite value destinations.
Secrets to Save on: Hotels | Vacation Packages | Cruises
Air travelers have hit some turbulence this year. Air traffic controller furloughs led to thousands of flight delays in April. The attacks at the Boston Marathon likely contributed to the postponement of new rules that would have allowed previously banned items, such as hockey sticks and small knives, onboard planes. Skyrocketing airfares to Europe, due to high fuel prices and high demand, have made travel to the Continent even pricier. Plus, fees continue to rise: United Airlines increased its domestic change fee to $200, and American, Delta and US Airways followed suit. But you can still find good deals and avoid the crowds, especially if your plans are flexible.
How to Save
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, Wednesday or Saturday afternoon to bag a cheaper plane ticket. If you’re taking a weeklong domestic trip, depart on a Saturday and return on a Monday and you’ll score a 16% discount on your airfare, according to Kayak.com, the travel Web site. For weeklong international trips, departing on Tuesday and returning on Wednesday of the following week saves 21%, on average.
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. (See Also: 12 Vacation Destinations on Sale.)
3) Use Kayak.com — our favorite among fare aggregators — to quickly scan hundreds of travel Web sites for the cheapest airfares. Check fares on Southwest.com separately — Kayak doesn't include fares for the budget airline.
4) Sign up for airlines' free e-mail alerts to get sale notifications and coupon codes delivered straight to your in-box. Or follow airlines and alert sites, such as Airfarewatchdog, on Twitter. Not only do you get first dibs on flash sales, but you also develop a point of reference to recognize good deals.
5) Make sure you're buying at the right time with Bing Travel's "price predictor." 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. And note that domestic airfares are cheapest seven weeks before departure, according to CheapAir, an airfare booking site.
6) 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.
7) Get a deal on extras. Several airlines have introduced new ways of bundling fees. For example, Delta’s $21 “Ascend” package includes in-flight Wi-Fi and priority boarding. American Airlines’ $68 “Choice Essential” package includes a checked bag, a reservation change and Group 1 boarding. Some bundles are more valuable than others. American’s package is a deal if you suspect that your itinerary might change. Delta’s is more about saving a few bucks.
8) 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 and score any cash back you deserve.
9) Avoid the extra baggage fees that most airlines charge. Southwest continues to allow two free checked bags; JetBlue permits one. See SmarterTravel for a comprehensive list of fees from 16 major airlines. And weigh the costs of carrying luggage versus shipping it — see KIP TIP: Save Money By Shipping Your Luggage.