You can always stumble upon unexpectedly low airfare or choose the cheapest hotel out of a long list of prices. We believe, though, that there are some tried and true methods for saving money on all kinds of travel, whether you’re in search of an amazing hotel, a cruise, even a vacation package. Here are some of our favorite tips and tricks to keep more money in your wallet when you book your next trip.
1. Think Seasonally: Before you book, check the weather. Traveling in your preferred destination’s “low season” — that is, when weather and travel conditions aren’t perfect — can save lots of money. Think Miami in July when scorching temperatures take over, Ireland in February when it’s more likely to rain, or the Riviera Maya in September during hurricane season. These are the moments when flights and lodging hit rock bottom, the tourist throngs shrink to nothing, and you can explore and enjoy a destination without having to rush for reservations. Of course, there’s a trade-off; you may very well see your getaway disturbed by less-than-perfect weather. If this is too much risk, think about booking in shoulder season — the periods surrounding low season when the likelihood of bad weather subsides a bit. You’ll still find great value here, even if prices aren’t as dirt cheap as in low season. For more on when and how to visit popular destinations for the best value, check out our Sweet Spot columns.
2. Stay and Fly During the Week: For many destinations, weekends are where it’s at. Hotels and flights fill up. Rental cars become scarce. This is especially true of destinations that cater specifically to weekend and day tripping guests — think U.S. beach and big-city destinations, Caribbean islands, and Europe destinations that are within easy reach of the East Coast, like Iceland and London. If you can go against the grain and stay or fly on a Monday or Tuesday, you’re likely to save. Note that destinations saturated with business travelers during the week — like Washington, D.C. — can often get cheaper on weekends when those folks clear out. This can also be true of business-centric areas within a big city, like in NYC’s Financial District.
3. Forgo the Extras (Or Get Them for Less): Do you really need a $40 per person hotel breakfast every morning of your stay? What if you spring for the breakfast on one day of your trip and indulge in coffee and croissants at the local bakery on the other mornings? For every minute you’re traveling, you can always add on services and meals that make your trip more convenient or fun. All of these items — from bottled water at the airport to a massage at the resort — can wreak havoc on your travel budget. The best way to manage these costs is to plan ahead. Consider more than just meals on days when you’re doing lots of sightseeing. You’ll also want to plan for souvenir shopping, snacks, a checked bag, bottled water for long walks and hikes, public transportation or taxis, sunblock, and any item you forgot to pack. You’ll also want to factor in some funds for an unexpected splurge to smooth the inevitable bumps that come along with travel — a taxi if you get caught in a rainstorm, an upgrade to a nicer restaurant in case your first choice is closed or packed, drinks at the resort that aren’t included in your package. No vacation is ever completely hiccup-free, and budgeting for it can alleviate stress. Keep an eye peeled, too, for special offers that bundle extras in your basic fare. Check hotel and cruise sites for packages that include meals, spa treatments, credit, or special activities — just be sure to price out those extras yourself to make sure you’re actually saving money. If you really love included perks, consider booking a vacation package. These kind of trips can include tons of value-packed extras like transfers, meals, and even excursions, without passing on a lot of extra costs to you.
4. Forget Direct Flights: A nonstop flight may offer convenience — especially if you’re traveling with young children — but it will almost always cost more than a flight that includes a layover. If you’re an especially independent traveler, you can even book the different legs of your flights separately, and on different airlines, to score some additional savings. For example, if you’re trying to get to Europe for less, you might find a cheap flight to Dublin that lets you easily transfer to a budget carrier like Ryanair or EasyJet — opening the doors to all of Europe — once you arrive there. If the thought of a short connection doesn’t appeal to you, consider airlines that offer free stopovers. Iceland Air, Cathay Pacific, Air New Zealand, Singapore Airways, and many other airlines let you stop for a few days, usually in the airline’s hub city, without an extra fee. Some actually offer discounted or even free lodging, so check the airline’s website for details.
5. Know Where and When to Look: Finding the best price on travel means knowing how to navigate a variety of online sources, like search engines, e-mail newsletters from your favorite airlines, and online travel agencies (OTAs). If you have one special travel destination in mind, it’s helpful to watch all of these spaces over a period of time to get a sense for what a great (and not-so-great) price looks like for your particular trip. But how often should you check? And how long before your trip? If you’re not traveling over a holiday or for a major event (like the Super Bowl, for example) you should be able to secure the best prices on hotels, cruises, and flights about six to eight weeks before you plan to travel. We usually start our price research a few weeks before that, checking a few times each week to get a sense of how pricing looks so we’re not hit with sticker shock when it comes to time to actually book. And of course, we always recommend signing up for ShermansTravel’s newsletters. We do a lot of the vetting and searching for you, and we deliver great pricing directly to your inbox, so you don’t have to spend a lot of time digging for the best deals of the week.
6. Maximize Points — Or Not: It’s often a difficult decision — stay loyal to a single airline or hotel brand for the points and perks, or pick the lowest price, no matter where you find it. Our take? It depends on how often you travel, and what works for you. Sticking to a single travel company can cost you more in the short run because your options are limited, but becoming an elite member of a loyalty program can have big payoffs over time. In addition to earning points toward free or discounted travel, loyal customers are often rewarded with better customer service, access to upgrades, and freebies like drinks and wifi. If you travel often enough to achieve preferred status with your favorite brand within a single year, it’s probably worth striving for. If you don’t travel often, sticking consistently to a single brand may not make sense and it certainly won’t save you money. In that case, shop around, and go for the lowest price that suits your budget.
7. Look for What’s New: Whether it’s a brand new resort, or a mega-size cruise ship that’s fresh from the shipyard, or an airline rolling out new routes, anything that’s brand new in travel is...empty. This is a great time to look for discounts and booking incentives, especially if you’re the type who loves to try out a new hotel or ship when all of its spaces are still sparkling, and before it gets crowded. Look for these offers in the months and weeks before the property is open for business, or before the ship starts sailing. This is when travel companies are eager to start generating revenue from their new products, but often don’t yet have an established customer base for them. For you, this means deals galore.
8. Lock in Your Plans: It’s a golden rule in booking travel: those who book early, and who pay up front and in full, will save money. Almost every hotel and resort offers a specific rate — usually the lowest available — that’s reserved for customers who book ahead (often 14, 30, or 60 days), and who pony up their credit cards for the full price of the stay at the time of booking. These rates are often nonrefundable. Look for these rates when you’re searching for prices on OTAs, and in hotel booking engines. Airlines do this, too. Tickets that are less flexible, that don’t allow changes or refunds, and that are booked at least two weeks in advance cost significantly less than changeable, refundable, and last-minute tickets.
9. Mix High and Low: What’s your travel priority? Is it a luxury hotel with impeccable service and high thread-count sheets? Is it a lie-flat airline seat that lets you sleep comfortably on a long flight? Is it Michelin-starred cuisine, a private tour, or a relaxing massage? No matter what you love — and what you need to really unwind on your vacation — you can have it. You just have to prioritize it, and build in your savings elsewhere. Maybe you don’t mind flying on a low-leg-room budget carrier if it means you can spend a week eating your way through Paris’s best restaurants. And maybe you’re happy to stay two nights at a comfortable chain hotel if you can spend a third night at a five-star hotel in Tokyo. Our advice? Whichever part of travel ignites your passion, start there and budget it first. Then build the rest of your trip around it.
10. Don’t Follow the Throng: Staying on the well-worn tourist path can be comforting when you’re in a new place — especially when you’re wrangling a new currency or don’t speak the language. It can also be expensive. We’ve seen many a restaurant, gift shop, and attraction in highly touristed areas charging double or triple the prices in other parts of town. To get away from the guide-book-toting masses, start with your hotel concierge. They can direct you toward what’s delicious, authentic, and affordably priced, and they can point you to places where you’re less likely to spend a fortune on a mediocre meal or experience. Look for concierges in particular who wear the "cles d'or," or golden keys, on their lapels. They've gone through special training, adhere to codes of ethics, and offer deep expertise in the destination. If you're out and about in a neighborhood and find a place that you like, ask the shopkeeper, waiter, or bartender for places that they enjoy.