Last Updated: April 19, 2010
The U.S. economy may be recovering, but spenders at all levels are hanging onto their wallets. And travel experts say the vacation deals available last year are still going to be around for stingy travelers this year.
Here's why. A March Gallup study reported that upper-income spending (households making more than $90,000 a year) dropped to a new low in February. That's meaningful for everyone since wealthier travelers tend to support higher prices on virtually every type of goods or service. Mintel, a marketing research firm, reported in February that while slightly more people will be vacationing in 2010 than 2009, most tourist spots won't be raising their prices and in some cases will be offering bigger deals.
With that in mind, here are some ways to save on travel this summer:
- Go online: Yes, there are a few leading travel Web sites where you can do price checks, but if you have specific destinations in mind, go to comparison sites to see what the best rates might be for hotel and transportation choices. Then follow up online or by phone with the hotels, cruise, rental car and airline companies to see if they're offering special deals and discount codes to save more. Also, if there's an airline, rental car or hotel chain you frequent, make sure you're a member of their point clubs and social networking sites to earn points and get timely discount information.
- Go all-inclusive: If they exist where you're going, head for the all-inclusive air/hotel/rental car packages whenever possible because making your reservations a la carte will almost always cost you more.
- Fly standby: This is a bit tougher with family or during peak travel times, but flying standby — essentially waiting for seats to open up on an unfilled plane within minutes of takeoff — can allow you to fly at a discount. But this practice requires flexibility and an ability to improvise in similar fashion when you get to your destination.
- Do a home exchange: One of the best ways to cut a hotel bill is to simply avoid staying in a hotel. An increasing number of Web sites — including HomeExchange.com, which bills itself as the world's largest home exchange club — allow you to stay in someone else's home while they stay in yours. It makes good sense to research the terms and conditions of these arrangements and talk to people who have shared homes before you commit.
- Go where summer is the off-season: Admittedly, it's tougher with kids since they can only travel when school's out, but if your schedule is flexible, start traveling out-of-season all the time. Vegas and Aruba might be hotter than blazes in July, but you'll save money on hotels, meals and other expenses that dip in price when the crowds are low. For family friendly venues, you might want to check prices on the edges of summer when schools are still letting out or going back into session.
- Consider a staycation: Cash-strapped states are working especially hard to boost in-state tourism business. Check out your home state or city's tourism Web site for coupons and other discounts. Also, sign up for e-mails from your local transit agencies and check their Web sites — you might hear about special deals at local museums or parks and free parking sites where you can leave your car before you pick up the train or bus.
- Check out your motor club: Major organizations like AAA negotiate good prices on popular tourism locations around the country, even places like Disney World. Again, even if you don't have kids, check your motor club's offerings on hotel, destination, rental car and even train discounts.
- Save money on food while traveling: There was a time when families traveled with a picnic basket full of sandwiches and a thermos. Those days might be returning. It's also not a bad idea to ask for a hotel room with a kitchenette or a microwave where food from the grocery store or leftovers from the previous night's meal might be warmed up.
- Leave or return on a Monday or Tuesday: Play around with the days of the week that you can schedule your trip just to see if you can find significant savings on hotel and airfares. Fighting to get home on a Saturday or Sunday can cost you money.
- Pinch those gasoline pennies: If you're driving your own car on trips, focus on maintenance and when and where you're buying your gas. Keep your tires inflated and make sure your engine is in good shape for maximum fuel economy. Also, don't carry tons of stuff — heavier cars burn more gas. Consider joining a wholesale club that sells their own gas onsite — you might save a considerable sum not only at home, but in out-of-town locations where you're staying (hit the Internet and check before you go). Also, buy gasoline mid-week when prices generally stabilize from spikes entering the weekend and starting the workweek. Last but not least, buy gas when daytime temperatures are lowest. Why? Because during cool hours, gasoline is densest and packs more fuel power.