By Jean Chatzky with Arielle McGowen
April 16, 2009
Recession travel? It sounds kind of like an oxymoron, and in a lot of ways, it is. Many of us just don't have the cash right now, and choosing to save rather than spend at times like these is almost always a good decision.
But summer vacation season is inching up fast, and sometimes you just need to get away for a while. Luckily, if you've managed to scrape some cash together for a family trip or you have mandatory travel on your agenda—like a family wedding—there are plenty of deals out there to help you out.
"This economy is absolutely working toward people's advantage when it comes to deals. It's really a travel buyer's market out there, and if you're thinking about taking a vacation, now is one of the best times in recent history to get a good price," says Jeanenne Tornatore, travel expert at Orbitz.com.
Here's how to stretch your travel dollars this year.
Think outside the box. Or, in this case, the hotel. Alternative properties like condos and private homes often seem more expensive, but when you factor in the use of your own kitchen—and the savings that comes with eating at home rather than dining out for every meal—they can actually be much, much cheaper.
I know: You don't want to spend your vacation slaving at the stove. But just buying some cereal for breakfast and deli meat for make-your-own sandwiches can save you a bundle: For a family of four, you could save at least $75 a day this way. Times that by a week's vacation, and you've shaved $450 off the cost of your trip.
Stay flexible. This is an evergreen tip, but it's a good one: The more flexible you are about booking a trip, the more money you'll save.
If you can fly in and out on Wednesday, instead of Saturday, your tickets will undoubtedly be cheaper. If you're open to different locations, you can save even more, says Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, editor-in-chief of WeJustGotBack.com. "When people go to book vacations, they pick a destination and then go shopping for airfares. They think they want to go to Florida, but often they just want to go somewhere warm."
If you use a site like AirfareWatchdog.com, you can plug in your local airport and get a list of good deals. Not only will it open your eyes to locations you wouldn't have otherwise considered, but you'll save some money in the process.
Look for value-added deals. Hotels are struggling to fill rooms right now, and they want to entice you in. "They're really throwing things in to the mix to sweeten the deal for travelers," Tornatore says. That could be anything from spa credits to free meals to an upgraded room.
If you don't want to use the spa, that's one thing, but if it was something you were planning on paying for, a free massage can reduce the cost of your trip by $100 or so.
Watch your timing. Booking far in advance used to be the standard advice, particularly when it came to cruises. But times have changed, Kelleher says. "People aren't booking as far out these days because they're nervous about losing their job. That makes the travel provider very nervous, and it's another reason why we're seeing a lot of deals: It's hard to forecast occupancy in hotels and on cruises." In general, there is plenty of occupancy, so go ahead and monitor it every once in a while, but waiting until the last minute—two to four weeks before—is likely to get you a better deal.
One caveat: Most airlines will refund the difference to you if your ticket price goes down after you buy, provided you buy directly from the carrier.
One last tip: Tuesday afternoon is the best time to look for airfare sales, Kelleher says. Often, an airline will put up a sale on Monday, and by Tuesday afternoon, most other airlines will bring their prices down to match that sale.
Stay close to home. Driving is almost always cheaper than flying, particularly this year, when gas prices are lower than they've been in years past.
You may think you live in the middle of nowhere, but a quick visit to your state's convention and visitor's bureau will prove you wrong: Chances are there are all kinds of attractions you didn't even know existed and deals to go with them. If you can't find anything suitable in your own state, check out your neighbors.
Can't find a deal? Negotiate. Hotels are notorious for working with you if occupancy is down—as Kelleher says, the hotel business is all about "heads on beds." You just have to take the right approach:
Arm yourself with information. Go on a consolidator like Hotels.com and plug in the name of the hotel to find out the rate offered. Then, go on the website of the hotel itself and get the rate quoted there. If you can, find rates for a few nearby—and comparable—hotels as well. Then, pick up the phone and give them the facts: Tell them the prices you've seen, the competitor's prices (if they're lower, of course) and ask what they can do for you.
If the operator won't lower the nightly rate, ask to speak to a manager and go through your spiel again. Often, managers have the ability to offer discounts that front desk attendants don't.
As a last resort, try for extras. If you can't get a deal on the bottom line price, they may throw in free parking or complimentary meals for kids, which can still save a bundle. Remember, they want your business.