View from a $12 room in Guatemala
Magazines and websites constantly run stories about finding great travel bargains and vacation deals. Usually they highlight some nifty new website, the latest app, or some Twitter stream that you have to catch at 3:30 pm each Thursday. Really though, it’s not that complicated. Here’s the one-sentence answer on how to save the most:
Pick the right place, at the right time, and pay less than what most others are paying.
Pick the Right Place – a Cheaper Destination
Destinations are not priced equally. Internationally, your daily budget on the ground in Japan can literally cost you five times more than traveling around Indonesia will cost you. Denmark will be exponentially higher than a vacation in Bulgaria—and about 8 to 1 when it comes to beer. Two weeks in Chile will cost you three times as much as two weeks in central Ecuador.
If you start with an expensive destination, all other cost-cutting attempts become much harder and less effective.
Even within countries though, major capitals and popular tourist resort areas occupy the top end of the scale. Compare New York City to Austin, Cabo San Lucas to Guanajuato, or Lisbon to any town in the Alentejo region of Portugal. Sure, we’d all like to spend a week in Paris, but if you’re looking to lower expenses, head to the villages instead.
Travel at the Right Time
Nearly every destination has a high season and a low season. Sometimes the off season is off for a reason though. The optimal vacation deals time is in between—the proverbial “shoulder season.” This is when the weather is still good and everything is still open, but the tourist hordes and peak prices have gone home.
In some places this is easy to figure out, like Europe in the spring or late autumn, the Caribbean or Mexico after the spring break crowds and snowbirds have left. In others it’s not as obvious, but a quick glance at a guidebook or destination website will usually clue you in.
The tough one for parents is always our summer, when school is out. That’s a bad time to go to rainy Costa Rica or to sweltering Orlando. But even then, it’s not high season in the southern hemisphere, in African safari country, and much of Southeast Asia. It’s not high season for big cities in the U.S. You can find rock-bottom deals in places where it’s sweltering, but where it’s well-air-conditioned inside and stocked with swimming pools outside: think Las Vegas, Scottsdale, and Florida beach areas. Avoid the obvious and you’ll be rewarded.
Pay Less Than What Most Others are Paying
If you open up a common online travel agency site, book your hotel, and add on a few local tours, you’re probably paying top dollar. You can almost always do better.
Hotel chains spend millions of marketing dollars to make you believe their 20 percent off deal or $100 spa credit thrown in is some terrific bargain. If you go shopping around on the likes of Expedia and Travelocity, it’ll look that way too. Contracts with those online agencies ensure that nobody is showing a price much lower than anyone else’s.
There’s a whole other booking system though that’s hidden–it’s even called “opaque booking.” The main player that’s still around is Hotwire, while Jetsetter still offers big discounts on opaque deals. The idea has been co-opted by the regular booking sites though, with them offering “secret deals” or “hidden deals,” or “mystery deals” where you don’t see the actual name up front. If you’re just looking for a 3-star hotel in a certain area, this works fine. It’s especially good for rental cars in the USA since the companies are all so similar anyway.
If that idea makes you uncomfortable or you don’t want to commit your money up front, there are other strategies to take. The best one is to avoid the international chains entirely and book an independent hotel. You can find these in guidebooks, on websites dedicated to the destination, or on value-focused sites like Travelfish.org for Southeast Asia. For the most depth of indie hotels, the best bets are usually Agoda in Asia and Booking.com for Europe and Latin America.
A $17 hotel room in Mexico’s 2nd largest city
Sure, if you’ve got hotel loyalty points banked up you want to spend, by all means go with the corporate hotel or resort using that hard-won currency. But in many cases you’ll pay far less and get more personal service by staying at an independent hotel that is less visible but really wants your business. If you’re staying for more than a night or two, you’ll also have a better chance here of negotiating for a better rate or an upgraded room. Just ask a long-term traveling backpacker—they’re doing this every week.
This “pay less than most others” strategy applies to dining and attractions as well. Avoid tourist restaurants, sniff out the specials, and ask real locals (not a concierge) where they like to go. Find the local coupon books and consider checking Groupon or a local equivalent in the place where you’re headed. Act like a local and you’ll get better vacation deals than the average tourist.
There’s one expense I haven’t mentioned in all this and it’s a sizable one: airfare. In today’s mostly transparent climate for flights, finding a real airfare deal is not easy no matter where you’re going. Use miles to pay for long-haul flights when you can and watch for specials.
Many sites like Skyscanner will let you search all flights from your own airport to spot the bargains or will send you a weekly rundown on sales. Some will refund the difference if the price drops. Moving your departure dates up or back a couple days can save a small fortune. Plus if you’re not dead-set on a certain place, you’ll find many more opportunities to save. In other words, return to #1 because that’s a different angle on “Pick the right place.”
For more timeless advice on getting better vacation deals for your travel budget, pick up the book Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune, available in paperback and for the Kindle.