As someone who has books out on finding travel deals, I’ll frequently get requests from friends or relatives looking for the impossible.
“We’re planning a trip to Florence and Rome in July. Can you help us find a good deal?” is a typical one.
Or, “We want to take our family to a beach resort in Aruba over Spring Break in mid-March. How can we get cheap flights for that?”
The problem with these requests, and the myriad variations like them, is that most of the variables have been removed. When your options are limited, you will pay top dollar. There are sometimes a few ways around it, but usually, you suck it up and pay or you don’t go.
For most trips, these factors determine the price you pay:
1) Where you go
2) When you go
3) How you get there
4) Where you stay
5) What you spend on food, activities, and transportation on the ground
Of course how many people are going is also a factor, but let’s assume in most cases that’s not negotiable.
So for the proverbial summer trip to Europe from some airport that’s not an international gateway, your savings options are next to nil. You’ve removed the first three variables and it’s high season for the last two, when prices are at their peak. You can mess around at the margins by choosing one airline over another, by going up or down on the accommodation scale, but for the most part you’re stuck at the height of the range for prices. Apart from staying with a friend of a friend and finding free days at museums, your cost-cutting opportunities are limited.
What happens if you open up those variables? Eastern Europe can be half the cost of Western Europe, Thailand half the price of Singapore, Jordan half the price of Israel. Sometimes the price difference is this dramatic with countries that are side by side: Costa Rica and Nicaragua, for instance. Even in the U.S., a vacation in Nashville is going to hurt your wallet a whole heap less than New York: the largest cities have some of the highest price tags.
A lot of people go on vacation in the summer, but that doesn’t mean it’s high season everywhere. You’re six months away from when the locals go on vacation in South America. It’s low season in much of Mexico and Central America and shoulder season in the safari areas of Kenya and Tanzania. It’s high season in the mountains of Peru, but not in the mountains of Nepal. In much of Southeast Asia, seasonal fluctuations are minimal. Outside of the summer months, it’s even easier to find a bargain – including in Western Europe.
For how you get there, keep an open mind if you have to fly. Can you use your bank of frequent flyer miles? Can you reduce the price by moving your plans a few days one way or another? Can you fly from an alternate airport to take advantage of specials? Can you fly into a gateway city on one airline and then take a smaller budget airline to your final destination? All this takes a little digging of course, but the routing map at FareCompare is a good start to see where the lowest combinations are.
When choosing a place to stay, it also pays to dig deeper. Use a guidebook to find non-chain hotels with character, or use a local website run by someone with feet on the ground in the location instead of one of the corporate booking sites. Many family-run hotels don’t show up on the likes of Expedia because they don’t want to pay the fat commissions. Find them by other means and you often benefit from much lower rates – and a more memorable experience than staying in a chain hotel that could be anywhere.
The local approach can pay off for activities and dining as well. Ask someone besides a concierge for recommendations. “Where would you go eat around here,” is always a good tactic. Use sites like Chowhound and tap your social media network, sure, but in-person info is often fresher and less hit-and-miss. Check the tourism site for local deals, keep an eye out for coupons, and if you’ll be there long enough to benefit, one of you can even sign up for Groupon or Living Social where you’re going. Or you can buy something like the Entertainment Book for a variety of 2-for-1 deals.
The overall key is to keep your options open. The more variables you leave open, both in the planning and after arrival, the more you will invariably get for your travel budget.
About the Author
Tim Leffel is author of four travel books including Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and The World’s Cheapest Destinations. His award-winning Cheapest Destinations Blog has been dishing out advice since 2003 and his Practical Travel Gear blog reviews something worth packing every weekday.