10 Cost-effective Ways to Shop for a Vacation

Don't let high prices stop you from some fun in the sun!
Don't let high prices stop you from some fun in the sun!

If your last couple of staycations resulted in marathon home improvement or cleaning projects that left you more exhausted at the end of your holiday than you felt when it started, this may be the time to indulge a little judicious wanderlust. A 2011 American Express poll suggests that consumers are beginning to feel more enthusiastic about spending on travel, a trend that will likely continue to develop if economic indicators remain steady or improve. If you'd like take your holiday mobile this season (and who wouldn't?), we have some sweet suggestions that will help you get the best value for your battered and abused dollar.


Shop Your Airfare

There are a number of ways to save on airfare these days, and that's a good thing. If you plan on flying to your destination, the cost of getting from here to there is likely to be the single largest expense of your trip. Internet sites like TravelZoo and Expedia will help you compare ticket prices and suss out good bargains, but using a couple of common sense cost-cutting strategies will benefit you, too. Booking your flight ahead of time will net you a better price: 60 days in advance or more isn't too soon. The airlines are in the business of filling seats, and if you fly on less popular travel days, you'll save. The airlines consider these off-peak times, and they include Saturday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

While you're shopping online, you should also consider the time you book your reservation. It may seem peculiar (and a bit sneaky), but travel sites alter their deals slightly based on time of day or the day of the week. Log on and check the deals more than once to make sure you're getting the best bargain out there.



Travel in the Almost Off Season

You may just have the whole beach to yourself if you plan it right.
You may just have the whole beach to yourself if you plan it right.

The travel industry is seasonal. What constitutes the most popular season for a destination will be the most expensive time to take a trip there. Traveling in the almost off season, a few weeks before or after the most popular travel time, will save you money. This is what the industry calls the "shoulder season." The weather may not be quite as nice, but a more convenient air travel timetable and better hotel accommodations could make the compromise worthwhile. You'll save, avoid crowds and still have access to most of the important features and amenities your destination has to offer.


Scope out the Meal Bargains

When you're traveling, eating out can get expensive. If you want to keep mealtime simple most days, opt for a hotel room that includes a fridge and microwave, or even a kitchenette. Depending on where you're going and when you travel, this type of accommodation doesn't have to cost much more than a standard room.

If you're traveling within the U.S. and want to experience all the wonderful flavors of your destination, deal sites like Groupon can be a goldmine. You can easily change the parameters of your search to include your vacation destination. Meal deals on these sites are often 50 percent or more off the regular price. If a meal deal offered in your destination city looks good, verify that its expiration date extends beyond your scheduled travel date and sign up. It's an inspired way to dine well for less.


If you're on a grueling budget but still want to dine in style, consider making lunch the main meal of your day for the length of your stay. You can sample the local fare, but the prices will be more budget-friendly. You'll get a better night's sleep, too.


Save Money on Lodging

Hotel rates are going up just about everywhere, but that doesn't mean there aren't bargains to be had. If you're staying at a popular tourist location, one cost saving option is to book your lodging in the next nearest town. If the distance isn't too great, you may save more by spending some additional money on gasoline (or other transportation) in order to pay a lot less for your hotel. This isn't always feasible, but it may be worth some additional research. If you're on a family vacation, consider booking a suite instead of a couple of rooms. Suites are typically less expensive than multiple bookings, and they can be more convenient when you're trying to keep track of everyone.


Save on Your Car Rental

Renting a car for your stay is another big expense where you can shave pennies (and whole dollars) if you're careful. Larger cars may ride better, but they burn more gasoline than economy cars. When considering transportation, it's always a good idea to strike a balance between comfort and economy. If you'll be spending most of your time at the family reunion instead of on the road, is it really a big deal to lose a little leg room in transit?

There are other ways to save, too: If you have insurance coverage as a perk with one of your credit cards, be sure to use that card to pay for your car rental and refuse the coverage offered by the rental company. Check your credit cards to see what perks you're entitled to, and read the fine print to familiarize yourself with the details. Some policies exclude mini-vans, for instance, or have higher deductibles than you may be comfortable with.


If you'll be moving from destination to destination and plan on dropping the rental off in a different city, state or country, you could end up paying big for the privilege. It may be cheaper to rent and return a vehicle at each destination. It's an added hassle, but could make money sense if the alternative means skipping meals or staying in a hotel with fewer amenities.


Bundle Travel and Lodging

A bundled travel package could have you in a hotel you never thought you could afford.
A bundled travel package could have you in a hotel you never thought you could afford.

Online travel sites and travel agencies offer special deals if you're willing to bundle your travel with a stay in their preferred hotel. You'll get a discount on both travel and lodging for one stop shopping that will save you money. This is typically a one size fits all proposition, but if you don't like the idea of making holiday bargain hunting your hobby for a few weeks, choosing a bundled package may be the answer. Can you save more if you take a do it yourself approach to vacation bargain hunting? Well, probably. Your time is worth something, too, though, so factor that into the equation as well.


Plan on Traveling Light

The days when you could cajole the airlines into letting you add another bag to your luggage for free are a distant memory. These days every inch and ounce counts. If you plan on taking a few extras on holiday, like all your makeup and a beguiling assortment of shoes, consider traveling lighter. The airlines charge extra for amenities these days, including extra luggage, based on weight, size and quantity. Make sure you aren't derailing your travel budget before you ever arrive at your destination. Even if you have to pick up a few basic items once you get where you're going, you'll probably save money by not having to pay extra to transport additional stuff. Policies regarding how much is considered too much varies from airline to airline, so check your carrier's Web site for details. Seriously, though, don't you usually over pack for pleasure trips? Lose the bulk. You'll never miss it.


Consider a Cruise

Everything you could ever want all in one place.
Everything you could ever want all in one place.

Cruise travel may seem out of your reach, but bargains aren't that hard to score if you know a few tricks. The cruise lines reward smart shoppers who plan their holidays well in advance. For the best deals, start researching summer holiday options right after the New Year. You'll be able to find bargains until around March.

If you stick with the large cruise lines and zero in on their most popular destinations, you can often take advantage of additional savings even after the first of the year booking window. If the bean counters decide that bookings are down for a particular locale (a common phenomenon in recent years), they'll start to add enticing perks to their offers. Be on the lookout for discounted packages that include room upgrades and even extras like free airfare from major hubs. If you're willing to risk waiting and maybe not getting a deal, you can sometimes snag a great bargain. Shoulder season discounts apply to the cruise lines, too, but be careful of weather issues that may keep you inside where the action isn't.



Choose a Packaged Deal or Tour Vacation

Complete package vacations like those notorious European tours that hit 20 cities in 12 days can save you money because the sponsors negotiate great rates for directing lots of business to local venues and merchants. You save, and everyone else involved makes money. You'll beat the published rates for everything from hotel rooms to museum admission prices by attaching yourself to a tour group. You can also score a few freebies and upgrades you wouldn't be eligible for on your own. The downside is that you'll likely be on a strict schedule, and there could be quite a few rules and some restrictions involved. You can find vacation packages to suit almost any lifestyle and interest. If you like the idea of being able to follow in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes (or Harry Potter) without having to do all the research yourself, a packaged tour vacation might be perfect for you.


Adapt or Risk Paying More

Canoeing in the mountains might not have been  your ideal, but it can still be amazing!
Canoeing in the mountains might not have been your ideal, but it can still be amazing!

When you plan your holiday, take the time to research two and possibly three alternate destinations. You may have your heart set on a specific locale, but being adaptable will give you some wiggle room when searching for the best bargain. Being flexible about the dates you travel and the length of your stay can often help you save, too. Fun in the sun doesn't have to mean Hawaii -- unless you're visiting relatives there. The more flexible and open you are, the more likely you'll be to find the style of holiday you want at a price you can afford.


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