You’ve got your destination picked out, you’ve researched itineraries and you’re ready to plunk down some cash to book your next vacation. How much you spend or save depends on the booking tricks you have up your sleeve. Know the secrets to finding lower-priced flights, hotels, cruises, car rentals and more, and you’ll keep more money in your pocket for meals and activities on the road.
Use the following cheap travel hacks when booking your next vacation and you’ll find that getting away isn’t as expensive as you thought.
If your destination requires air travel, book in advance and purchase round-trip tickets when possible. Flying in and out of the same airport typically saves you money, too. Try to be flexible with travel dates since some days are much less expensive than others. Keep in mind that domestic airlines typically offer the best deals at six to eight weeks out.
You especially want to book early if you’d like to book your flights using points or miles. Closer in, award travel might not be available, or the same flight will cost more miles/points.
If you need a rental car, the same advice applies, especially during peak travel times. Waiting to make that car reservation might not just mean paying more — it could mean not being able to get a vehicle at all.
And if you’re traveling by sea, booking cruises as early as possible will get you the lowest prices, most perks and widest choice of accommodations.
One airfare hack is to fly at off-peak times. For example, business travelers fly out Monday and back Friday to spend weekends with their families. Leisure travelers fly out Friday and return Sunday or Monday for weekend trips. That means flights are emptiest midweek, and therefore fares on those days are cheaper to entice travelers to fill those planes.
In addition to flying midweek, consider flying at off-peak times to save money. Early-morning flights and overnight redeyes may not be your first choice, but you can save a bundle by booking those. Look into alternative airports to find lower fares. For example, you can often save by flying into Baltimore rather than D.C., San Jose or Oakland instead of San Francisco, and Providence instead of Boston.
The same strategy applies for your entire vacation. Go where the crowds aren’t to find deals and lower prices. A resort in the Colorado mountains will be cheaper in the late spring than during peak ski season. Beach destinations are often cheaper in the early fall than in summer when all the families are traveling. Weekday stays at leisure travel destinations are cheaper than weekend trips.
Get deals on wheels
For car rentals, many deal hunters are surprised to find that Costco is one of the cheapest places to book a car rental. (Hotwire is another favorite.) It also has deals on hotel packages and cruises; you might get extra perks, a lower rate or a Costco gift card with your purchase.
A newer entry in the car rental marketplace is Autoslash. Autoslash acts like a search engine for car rental prices. It compares prices across car-rental companies, then looks for coupons or membership discounts (AAA, AARP, etc.). If you’ve already made a reservation, Autoslash will check to see if it can find a lower price.
Book the layover
Spending time to save money also works when it comes to airfares. It’s faster and easier to fly nonstop from your home airport to your destination. Select a flight with a layover, and you might save hundreds of dollars. Use the time to stretch your legs, eat real food (instead of airline snack boxes) and check your email and messages.
Whether you’re booking a flight, hotel, car rental or cruise, comparing fares across travel sellers can help you find a bargain. Use a site like Kayak to easily compare rates from different sellers in one place, so you don’t have to run the numbers manually on several websites. In addition, you can set price alerts for the flights you’re seeking and receive an email when the fare drops.
You also want to compare prices for different levels of service. For example, basic economy fares are the cheapest, but you have to pay extra for everything from checking luggage to choosing your seat. The total price might be cheaper if you book standard economy with a more expensive base price but fewer upcharges.
Similarly, if you’re booking a cruise, the inside cabin will be cheapest, but the balcony cabin might come with more space and more included perks. Depending on the difference in fares, you might ultimately spend less on your vacation with the higher-price, more-inclusive cabin.
Follow the deal-chasers
Alternative booking sites can have the best deals. Priceline.com offers low prices but you often won’t know which hotel you’ve booked until you’ve paid. Travel Zoo focuses on package deals for island resorts and many other places, and you save when bundling flights and lodging together. Groupon is another unexpected place to find deals on hotels and vacation packages – not just the activities you want to do once you get there.
Rent a house or apartment
Another hotel booking hack is not to book a hotel and rent a home or apartment instead. Houses offer greater comforts, and you may be surprised at how cost-effective the rent can be if you’re staying more than a couple days. VRBO.com and Airbnb.com are good sites for searching homes for rent at lower prices. More room for less money is a deal.
If you are traveling by car, take a supply of snacks, drinks and basic cooking supplies with you. Resort and beach destinations often put a higher price on these items, so plan ahead.
If you are disciplined enough to pay off credit cards within 30 days, get a credit card that earns points or miles. Accrue enough points with your everyday spending and you can pay for flights, cruises and resort vacations with points instead of cash.
Don’t use this strategy if you’re going to let the balance roll over to the next month, accruing interest. You’ll end up spending more in interest and fees than you earn in points.
If you’re OK with impromptu travel, book your reservations for lodging at the last minute if you can take the chance. Last-minute bookings can be less expensive than booking in advance, especially during slower travel periods. Don’t be shy about asking for discounts: You may be surprised at what you get.
On the flip side, booking late during peak tourist season or when there’s an event going on in town can be more expensive because all the available rooms are taken. It’s best to try this strategy if you don’t mind skipping the trip if you can’t find a deal.
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