Traveling to your dream destination this summer (or fall) doesn’t have to be a budget buster. We have strategies to save on every aspect of your vacation, from airfare to lodging to entertainment. You’ll keep enough cash to upgrade to a more comfortable experience, or at least come home with a few dollars still in your wallet. Here’s how to save on four different dream getaways: a romantic trip abroad for two, a volunteer vacation, a family reunion and an adventure cruise. Plus, we’ve highlighted destinations where you can get the most vacation bang for your buck.
Take a Romantic Trip Abroad for Two
To escape the crowds and avoid paying top dollar for plane tickets, fly someplace a little different. One good deal this year is Scandinavia. Food and entertainment aren’t cheap, but airfare can be. Norwegian Air shuttles tourists to Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm from a handful of U.S. airports, including newly added Fort Lauderdale. Flights recently cost a few hundred dollars each way, depending on the date and departure site. For example, fares from New York’s JFK International Airport to Copenhagen recently started at $204 one-way. Once you arrive in Copenhagen, you can stroll down the Strøget, a pedestrian zone in the heart of the city, or visit Tivoli, the world’s second-oldest amusement park, where you can wander the gardens and catch the spectacular fireworks displays.
If an a la carte trip to Europe seems daunting, consider a vacation package, which can be a good deal and help you stick to a budget. A 13-night excursion to Turkey was recently available for $1,989 (including airfare) at Gate1Travel.com. It included four nights in Istanbul, among other destinations, plus hotel, most meals and bus travel.
Or forgo Europe altogether. Flights to Latin America are affordable, and the U.S. dollar still goes far there. Airfares from the U.S. to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, a romantic old city with a warm climate and a vibrant nightlife, are $516 round-trip, on average, according to Orbitz. Lodging is reasonable (the average rate is $161 per night). Choose an adults-only resort to avoid rambunctious kids. One child-free, all-inclusive option, Casa Velas, recently offered rates of $216 per person per night for travel through 2014.
Another romantic buzzkill is spending the first eight hours of your holiday next to the aromatic airplane bathroom. If you’re flying this year, you might have to pay to change seats. Airplanes will be crowded, and fares will be high. You’ll continue to pay fees for everything, from checked bags to priority boarding and choice seats.
If you can select an attractive seat while booking your flight, go for it. To get first dibs on a post-booking seat assignment, log on as soon as you can in the 24 hours before departure, when the airline opens up additional seat assignments (you can do this from your smart phone). Enter your itinerary into www.seatguru.com to see a map of the plane so you can avoid seats with less legroom, limited space to recline or uncomfortable proximity to the galley and restrooms. On long-haul flights, it may be worthwhile to pay extra for an upgraded economy or exit-row seat (prices can range from a few dollars to several hundred, depending on the upgrade and flight).
For a major upgrade, check out deals on nonrefundable business-class fares, which can run 50% to 80% off regular business-class fares (you can find them on an airline’s “sales” or “specials” page). The tickets come with limitations: Fliers must purchase them a month or two in advance and can’t travel on certain blackout dates. But they’ll beat the discomfort of coach without costing ten times the price. “You’re going to pay through the nose anyway; you might want to get some value,” says George Hobica, of Airfarewatchdog.com. Recently, Air France offered a round-trip business-class sale fare from New York’s JFK to Paris for $3,046. That’s about half the price of regular business fares on the Air France site, though it’s twice as much as economy fares. KLM offered business-class sale fares from Chicago to Istanbul for $3,349.
Go on a Volunteer Vacation
Volunteer vacations run the gamut from rough-and-tough trail maintenance in the heart of a national park to sounding out letters with schoolchildren in St. Lucia. These trips, during which you volunteer from a few days to several weeks, can turn your holiday into an opportunity to help and may even qualify for a tax break.
A number of familiar organizations, such as the Sierra Club and Habitat for Humanity, offer volunteer trips. Each group organizes outings differently, with varying types of service opportunities and destinations. The more remote the destination and upscale the accommodations, the more you’ll typically pay.
For the lowest cost, stay close to home and choose a trip that involves basic lodging. For example, the Sierra Club’s fall trip to Acadia National Park in Maine recently cost $475, with a $50 deposit. Service projects might include restoring the carriage roads that crisscross the park or beating back invasive plant species. Volunteers sleep in tents, lace up their work boots for a day in the wild, and pitch in cooking group meals.
On the pricier end, Global Volunteers’ trek to St. Lucia involves providing “essential services”—such as gardening help and tutoring—to families and children. Volunteers fill out a questionnaire and undergo an interview to match their skills with their assignment. Nights are spent in an air-conditioned bayside hotel, and volunteers eat in restaurants. The two-week program fee runs $2,895 (airfare is extra and usually about $1,000) before taking a charitable tax deduction.
Be aware that although you can always sprinkle volunteer work into your vacation, a dedicated tax-deductible volunteer trip isn’t a holiday with a smattering of charitable day trips. To qualify for tax benefits, you’ll need to work 40-hour weeks with an organization recognized by the IRS. If you itemize deductions, you may be able to deduct expenses such as the program fee, airfare or meals.
If you want to make sure your dollar goes as far as possible to help improve the region, ask how much of your fee goes to local donations, suggests Shannon O’Donnell, author of The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. And make sure the locals have a say in what kind of assistance they’re getting. “Often the best programs involve training and capacity-building, so volunteers are leaving skills behind,” O’Donnell says. Check with the Better Business Bureau and ask for referrals from the service organization. The group should be able to put you in touch with a past volunteer.