Travel Secrets That Save You Money

Travel

Travel Secrets That Save You Money

These strategies and money-saving tips will help you unlock the very best values.

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Are you itching for a spring or summer getaway? You can often save money on airfare by hopping across the ocean to Europe and Asia rather than crisscrossing the U.S. Or you can jet from a growing number of East Coast cities directly to destinations all over Africa, from Casablanca to Cape Town, without dragging out your journey with a layover. And dreamy islands of the South Pacific beckon, with flights from the West Coast sometimes dipping into the $500s.

See Also: 21 Ways to Get Luxury Travel for Less

We’ve sifted through travel strategies and money-saving tips that will help you unlock the best values in travel. If you’re the type of traveler who is more about the journey than the destination, note that cruise lines are redefining how they offer value, emphasizing perks over last-minute price cuts. Or you can save on leisurely train travel without letting your budget go off the rails. We also reveal tricks from the pros that will help you turn up rooms in sold-out hotels or drive down the cost of a rental car. Finally, we highlight destinations where your travel dollar will go further, both here and abroad.

Air travel

Know when to pounce. If you reserve your plane tickets more than six months in advance, you probably won’t get the best fare, because airlines set their initial prices conservatively, says Hayley Berg, economist at price-prediction app Hopper. In general, you want to book domestic trips about 45 days in advance and international trips closer to 75 days in advance, says Berg. But the windows vary, so start monitoring your airfares further out.

Let the deals come to you. Are you happy to go with the flow? Sign up for Scott’s Cheap Flights e-newsletter (free for a standard subscription or $49 per year to get peak-season and rare deals). Or get instant alerts from Secret Flying’s smartphone app. Both services dig up rock-bottom airfares and may inspire you to pick a vacation spot you would otherwise never consider. Recent steals (all prices are for round-trip fares): Salt Lake City to Shanghai for $472, New York City to Peru for $286, and Boston to Barcelona for a minuscule $177.

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Search the vacation portal. American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue and other airlines hide discounts of up to 40% by bundling flights and hotels on their vacation-package websites—including for premium cabins and fancy hotels. Sometimes the airline will throw in bonus miles or additional discounts when you snag a package. Don’t need the hotel, or prefer to choose different lodging? This trick works even better. “You can book the package with the cheapest hotel, then book your hotel separately and get a ton of savings,” says Clint Henderson, senior news editor at ThePointsGuy.com. The airlines don’t consider this strategy an abuse of the system, he says, but you should cancel your hotel reservation as a courtesy. We found a five-night package on Delta Vacations for two travelers heading from Detroit to Vienna, Austria, in April for $914 apiece—with only one stop—if they chose the least expensive (and very inconvenient) hotel. For the same dates, flights start at $1,357, with two stops.

Catch a deal without committing. The Department of Transportation requires that airlines flying to, from or within the U.S. allow passengers to cancel within 24 hours of buying the ticket for a full refund (or place a 24-hour hold on charging for their airfares), as long as you made your reservation at least seven days in advance (American Airlines and Delta have even shorter windows). Delta gives you more wiggle room by allowing you to cancel a ticket for a full refund until midnight on the day after the reservation was made. Some foreign carriers that operate to or from the U.S. only allow a hold, so don’t pay for the ticket up front and expect a refund. Online travel agencies may offer similar policies but are not bound by the same rules as airlines.

Avoid delays. Grab a morning flight when possible, especially from non-hub airports. The plane that will take you to your destination typically arrives the night before, according to ExpertFlyer.com. The app TripIt will send you real-time flight alerts if you pay for the Pro version ($49 per year), or you can simply type your flight number into Google for an instant update. To track and predict delays, search your flight number at FlightAware.com and click “Where is my plane now.”

Head to the nearest hub. If your closest airport has few flight deals, scout airfares from the nearest hub airport. You may need to hop a flight or drive to the bigger airport to snag a deal. If you can drive to the airport, find alternatives to pricey airport garages at www.parksleepfly.com, where you can also reserve a package that bundles a night in a hotel, discounted parking and an airport shuttle.

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Train travel

Buy train tickets early. Amtrak prices don’t fluctuate wildly the way airfares do, so it usually makes sense to book as far in advance as you can. Amtrak has a light presence outside of the Northeast Corridor. In many areas of the U.S., only one train a day rolls through. For summer travel, sleeper cars can sell out 10 to 11 months in advance, says Ted Blank, a luxury travel specialist with Travel Leaders, in Stillwater, Minn. For an overnight or even a daylong trip, consider treating yourself to a sleeper car. It will cost more, but you’ll get meals and some privacy.

Take a pass on buying a rail pass (most of the time). “People used to buy rail passes in Europe and pop around as the spirit moved them,” says Blank. But in many countries in Europe, passes no longer make sense because you can’t necessarily just show up and ride, he says. Intercity high-speed trains often require a reservation, which costs extra, and these trains are often sold out at peak times. To see what makes sense, compare the cost of a pass that covers your regions and number of days you want to take the train, as well as the cost of paid reservations where necessary, to point-to-point tickets. For more information, check out Seat61.com, a site dedicated to train travel.

Cruises

Think perks, not price cuts. Cruise lines are pulling back from steep discounts and favoring a choose-your-own-perks approach instead, such as beverage packages, prepaid gratuities or onboard credit. Keep your eyes peeled for incentives during “wave season,” which typically lasts from January to March each year. A travel adviser can help you figure out which add-ons are best suited for you. “There can be a huge difference in value, but cruise lines don’t typically spell out exactly what the value of a drinks package or prepaid gratuity is,” says Scott Koepf, vice president of strategic development with Cruise Planners.

Plan way ahead. You are likely to be rewarded with the lowest cruise prices if you lock in your purchase when fares go on sale. That could be as far ahead as three years for high-end ships and two years for other ships. Meanwhile, last-minute deals have dried up over the past few years. “Cruise lines don’t want someone talking at dinner about how much they paid and find out the person at the next table bought their fare two weeks ago and paid half,” says Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor of CruiseCritic.com.

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Sail a refurbished ship. Cruise lines freshen up their ships every few years. But a more substantial renovation can make you feel as if you’re sailing on a brand-new ship without the new-ship price tag, says McDaniel. For example, Royal Caribbean has kitted out the Oasis of the Seas; the remodeled ship debuted at the end of 2019 and sets sail from New York in 2020, with a 10-story slide, escape room and karaoke booths.

Book a guaranteed cabin. If you’re not picky about the exact location of your cabin, you can gamble on a long hike to the elevator and reserve a cabin “guarantee,” which means the cruise line will assign you a room in the category you choose (inside, outside, balcony or suite). Depending on the line, you may save money over choosing a specific cabin. And if the cruise line oversells in your chosen category, there is a chance of getting bumped up to a higher level at no additional charge.

Track price drops. A travel adviser can monitor markdowns for you and shoot you an e-mail when a new offer or upgrade pops up. It’s not as easy to compare cruise fares as airfares and hotel rates, but you can shop around on CruiseCritic.com, Kayak and TripAdvisor, and sign up for free price drop alerts through CruiseCritic. Decide in advance what price you’re comfortable paying and how inclusive you’d like the ship to be, then pull the trigger when it hits your price point.

See Also: Great Getaways That Won’t Break the Bank

Hotels

See through sneaky tactics. While browsing listings on a hotel search site, ignore the urgent messages warning you that you risk missing out on the few rooms left if you don’t book now. These claims are often misleading. Research by Consumers’ Checkbook found that when booking sites warn about low inventory, they’re typically referring to a specific room type with low availability—say, a handicapped-accessible room with a king bed—while rooms in other categories are often still available at similar rates.

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Pick up the phone when the website sells out. If the hotel you’re eyeing seems to be sold out online, call the sales department or front desk rather than the reservations line, says Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. A staff member may be able to rustle up a room that was set aside for, say, a business account.

Exploit pricing quirks. For stays of three or more nights—and especially when you are booking multiple hotel rooms in one spot for a family or a group of friends—look up prices for each individual night as well as the total stay. In most cases the rates should be the same, but quirks in hotel revenue software may hike the rate of one big booking. If you find it’s cheaper to pay night by night, call the hotel and ask a staffer to link your reservations, says Harteveldt.

Milk benefits by booking directly. Hotels often reward loyalty members with reduced rates and freebies, such as Wi-Fi—and signing up for membership is free. At Omni hotels, members on their second stay of two to nine nights can choose a complimentary beverage every day, such as a coffee delivered to their room or a glass of house wine at the bar. At Kimpton hotels, members are eligible for a $30 spa credit. (You can get an extra surprise perk upon check-in, such as free breakfast or complimentary parking, by reciting the “secret password” that Kimpton leaks twice a year through its social media.) The Hoxton, a small chain with branches in Europe and several U.S. cities, lets guests who book directly set their own check-in and check-out times for free with advance notice.

Get yourself the travel adviser treatment. If you hold eligible American Express or Chase credit cards, you can book from a selection of upscale hotels through American Express’s Fine Hotels & Resorts program or Chase’s Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection. You’ll receive the same kind of pampered treatment you would have if you had worked with a travel adviser, who can access special perks thanks to his or her relationships—such as free breakfast, room upgrades, early check-in and late check-out—and a special amenity for the property, such as a spa visit, welcome gift or airport transfer.

Car rentals

Before you decide to rent a car, plug your origin and destination points (cities, landmarks and even addresses anywhere in the world) into the search box on Rome2Rio. The site will calculate routes by plane, train, bus, ferry and car and estimate the price range for each mode of transportation.

Capitalize on cancellation policies. Unless you prepay for your car rental, you can typically cancel up until the last minute with no penalty, so you can change plans or trade up for a better deal until the last minute. Eric Simonson, a certified financial planner in Minneapolis who specializes in travel, finds that discounts for prepaying are often slim, meaning “there is no reason to make a reservation that you can’t cancel,” he says.

Hand off the bargain-hunting. Rather than sorting through the car-rental incentives embedded in your memberships, credit cards and loyalty programs, enter your rental dates and location into AutoSlash.com. The site will combine all your available discounts and generate a quote. Or you can enter your existing reservation into its tracking tool and wait for AutoSlash to alert you to a price drop.

You may want the CDW. If you have your own auto insurance policy or your credit card benefits include car-rental insurance, it can be tempting to skip the collision damage waiver, which typically costs $10 to $20 per day. But the CDW covers two key charges that your insurance or credit card typically won’t cover in full—or at all: loss of use (the daily income the rental company loses while the car is being repaired) and diminished value (the difference in resale value for a car before and after an accident). You’ll also save on the headache of dealing with your rental agency if damage does occur.

See Also: Save on Rental Car Coverage

Smart spending

Don’t pay unnecessary fees. Going abroad? Take along a credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign-transaction fee, which can add 3% to each transaction. In countries that still largely rely on cash, be judicious about where you use your debit card to minimize fees on cash withdrawals. Avoid currency-exchange kiosks, such as those from Travelex, in favor of a major bank’s ATM, which will give better exchange rates.

Watch out for dynamic currency conversion. If a merchant gives you the choice between making your transaction in U.S. dollars or local currency, choose local currency. The amount you’re charged if you choose dollars includes an exchange rate with a markup, meaning you just paid a sneaky conversion fee.

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Hop on a plane

Denver. Frontier, Southwest and United all added routes to and from Denver in 2019, increasing competition to the Mile High City. Hopper forecasts an average domestic round-trip fare of $131 to Denver this year, and Kayak has named Denver as one of its top 10 “wallet friendly” cities—meaning the cost of a flight and hotel is considerably less than most other places.

French Polynesia. French Bee, a low-cost airline based in Paris, will whisk you from San Francisco to the dazzling lagoons of French Polynesia in eight hours. One-way basic fares (meaning no checked bag, seat choice or meals) start at $249, and a recent search turned up a round-trip itinerary for $659 in April. We also found flights on full-service airlines in the high $600s round-trip from Los Angeles and San Francisco stretching well into the spring.

Japan. Airfares from all over the U.S. to Japan have reached record lows, says Scott Keyes, of Scott’s Cheap Flights e-newsletter, with deals in the $500s and $600s, and sometimes even lower. A growing number of routes from the U.S. now fly into Haneda Airport, which is closer to Tokyo than Narita Airport.

Hit the rails

California Zephyr. This 52-hour journey begins in Chicago and hurtles west across the Rockies, through canyons and over the Sierra Nevadas, before pulling in near San Francisco. The cost for two people sharing a roomette was recently $771 to ride the entire route in late May.

Switzerland. A three-day Swiss Travel Pass starts at $240 and offers unlimited travel on regular trains, buses and boats (you pay to reserve on premium panorama trains, but reservations are not available on most other trains). You also get free admission to hundreds of museums and three mountain excursions. “Even the suburban trains in Zurich are tremendously scenic,” says Ted Blank, of Travel Leaders.

Book a cruise

Alaska. As competition to cruise Alaska heats up, you have plenty of options, whether you want to stick to a budget or bask in luxury. On the higher end, CruiseCritic.com recommends Regent’s Seven Seas Mariner 13-night Alaska cruise, which starts at $8,199 per person on June 4 but folds in food and drinks (including wine and spirits), gratuities, shore excursions and more.

The Caribbean. All major cruise lines own private islands in the Caribbean and many are revamping their amenities, which range from snorkeling excursions to zip lines to overwater cabanas, with only fellow cruise guests as company. For example, you can visit Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay in the Bahamas on Majesty of the Seas, which departs from New Orleans and starts at $501 for a seven-night cruise on June 13.

Norway. A budget cruise is one way to explore a swath of this expensive country. Holland America’s 14-day Norse Legends & Viking Sagas starts at $1,669 per person on May 24, and weaves in and out of the fjords carved into the southwestern coast.

Stylish places to stay

Florida Keys. The string of islands that trail off the tip of Florida and end at Key West are awash in high-end hotel openings and re-openings, according to Travelzoo. The Kimpton Key West is slated to open in Key West’s historic district in 2020, while the adults-only Little Palm Island Resort & Spa reopens on its private island in March. Campers can also stay in eco-tents in the nearby Everglades National Park for less than $100 a night.

Morocco. Luxury lodging is booming: a St. Regis and a Ritz-Carlton are opening in Tamuda Bay, a Ritz-Carlton is debuting in Rabat, and there are new upscale options in Tangier, according to ThePointsGuy.com. We found plenty of rooms for around $150 per night for an April stay at the Hilton Tangier Al Houara Resort & Spa.

Hong Kong. Hotels are skimming about 30% off their rates these days, says Henderson, of ThePointsGuy.com, who visited Hong Kong in November and says he felt safe. “The hotels know where the protests will be and tell you which areas to avoid,” he says.

Road trip!

Croatia. Escape the tourist-laden hot spots of Dubrovnik and Split by taking to the roads, which are in excellent condition and let you poke around tiny villages and glide along the coast at your own pace. It’s even doable in the off-season. When Melanie Lieberman, travel editor at ThePointsGuy.com, visited last February, she encountered some frozen roads in the mountains and a dusting of snow, but visited national parks—including the stunning turquoise pools of Plitvice Lakes—and enjoyed balmy temperatures on the coast.

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