As I often do when I’m traveling on vacation, I’ve plowed through a bunch of magazines this week and read a lot of articles about apps and websites that will help you find a great travel deal. It’s a popular subject and there are always new options coming along promising to shave some money off your flight, hotel, or rental car.
A lot of it is just space-filler, however, and half those apps will be gone in two years. [2019 update—one of them mentioned in this article originally is gone, swallowed up by Expedia/TripAdvisor/Hotels.com and killed off.]
As I pointed out in this post on the illusion of choice in your travel bookings, you don’t really have as many ways to shop around as you think you do though. Two big companies—Expedia and Priceline—control most of the online booking sites you have heard of or use. We’re down to three legacy airlines and Southwest in the USA, with JetBlue, Virgin, and the bare-bones (except fees) ones only flying specific routes. There actually might be more Mexican airlines now than there are U.S. ones.
There are a lot of deals going on all the time with the online booking sites, with the individual airlines, and with hotel chains. Keeping track of them all is pretty tough though unless you’re on message boards like FlyerTalk and are watching blogs and your e-mail subscriptions constantly. Sometimes it pays to check in with a coupon site that lists codes you can use for travel discounts. I’ll often check something like this when I need a rental car or a one-night stay in a chain hotel. I care more about price than brands in those circumstances.
Speaking of rental cars, don’t assume the first price you get is the best you can do. My wife sucked it up and booked a $51 a day rental car during a peak holiday period in Florida starting last night, then checked back a few days later and it was $45 a day. So she made a new reservation and canceled the old one. A couple days ago she checked again and the price had dropped to $35 a day. So she canceled the second reservation after making a third. She cut the price by nearly 50 bucks for three days.
You can do the same with hotels yourself (Expedia will refund the difference if you find it cheaper later) or automate it by booking through a site like Pruvo that refunds the difference. Just be advised that you often won’t get loyalty points from your favorite hotel chain this way and may miss out on the free WiFi many are only giving to their loyalty members. You have to book direct for the perks.
Hotel chains run “point sales” as well, where you can cash in loyalty points and get more than normal out of them because a hotel has a lot of empty rooms. I’m a big fan of the point breaks from IHG’s loyalty program and have scored five nights now in three countries at a rate of just 5,000 points. (Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, and Staybridge Suites.) Considering I recently got 70,000 points from a credit card sign-up, that’s a screaming bargain. Hyatt, Hilton, and Marriott do the same, but not so dramatically—with IHG I’ve even see Intercontinental ones go on sale for that rate. See more on some of the best cards to get here so you can travel more on your current income.
If you’re traveling internationally, use an appropriate booking site for that region or better yet, try working out a deal directly. Many independent hotels are not listed on any of the online travel agency sites and if you catch them when they’re half full, you can often negotiate a better deal than what’s listed. Going old school is sometimes the best approach.