Inside the deals: Hottest travel trends for summer 2009

In 2009, everything old is new again. Travelers are being more cautious during the economic downturn, and want a summer vacation that's going to give them the best experience for their hard-earned dollars and vacation time. Family vacations, road trips, and classic destinations are popular this summer, and deals are plentiful. High supply and decreased demand has created a buyers' (i.e., travelers') market. If you can swing it, you'll be able to get a lot more for your money this year.

I've been tracking the latest summer travel trends and deals to make sure you'll get a good vacation value for your money. Read on to find the latest recommendations for the most popular travel season and—of course—ways to save.

Air-and-hotel vacation packages

Airfare-and-hotel bundles, or vacation packages, offer great deals to some destinations this summer, such as Hawaii. "[Travelers] can get a better price on airfare because resorts are subsidizing the cost just to get people there," notes SmarterTravel Senior Editor Christine Sarkis; you may be able to find similar offers for destinations also hit hard by the recession (think Vegas, the Caribbean, and the like). Online travel agencies (OTA) such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity have plentiful offers to a wide variety of destinations. While the OTAs are often the first places travelers look for such vacation types, you may also want to check your preferred airline for packages, as many carriers now have comparable offers for airfare-and-hotel deals.

For example, popular low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines has a robust vacation package subsidiary, Southwest Vacations. Its current Wanna Get Away? promotion offers a range of discounts, including up to $114 in savings on vacations from Detroit to Ft. Lauderdale; up to $108 off packages from Long Island/Islip to Orange County, California; and up to $100 off vacations from San Francisco to Orlando, among many other city pairs. Book your vacation package by April 6 and travel through August 14. You can also check other carriers for their latest deals, including AAVacations, JetBlue Getaways, and United Vacations.

There's also a fee-elimination and travel-protection war currently going on among the major OTAs and Priceline, but only for a limited time. Read our recent blog to learn how you can save up to $600 on vacation package bookings through June 1.

All-inclusive resorts

I've been seeing a lot of deals for all-inclusive resorts this summer, and it makes sense—when you're pinching pennies, it's great to know your price for everything (accommodations, meals, and entertainment) up front, with no surprises later. All-inclusive properties also offer the ultimate in relaxation—everything is provided for you—which may be especially attractive in these high-stress times.

Vacation Outlet maintains a site exclusively for promotions at all-inclusive properties. At press time, current deals covering airfare, all-inclusive hotel, and taxes included $665 per person for four nights at the Starfish Trelawny in Falmouth, Jamaica; $779 per person for four nights at Dreams Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic; and $849 at Breezes Bahamas in Nassau. Many other packages are available; check the Vacation Outlet website for the latest offerings.

You'll also be able to find a variety of all-inclusive vacations on sale at BeachDestinations.com, CheapCaribbean.com, and PleasantHolidays.com. CheapCaribbean offers a feature where you can search by meal plan (select "All Inclusive" from the drop-down menu); other providers simply note which properties are all-inclusive in their search results.

Popular all-inclusive brands such as Beaches, Club Med, and Sandals list the latest promotions right on their own websites. Booking directly with a provider also eliminates third-party fees.

Family vacations

Summer is the most popular time for families to get away, and the plethora of deals this year reflects that. Whether it's a kids-fly-free deal, complimentary nights at hotels, or two-for-one dining and entertainment specials, you'll find a lot of extra value available for summer trips. (Look for these and similar deals on sites such as Family Travel Forum, About.com, or SmarterTravel's own family travel section.) For extra savings, take the extended family and split costs among the group. Bargains can be had if you know where to look.

We've covered this topic in abundance lately, but it's worth mentioning again: Vacation rentals can be a great option for a family traveling together. Rather than having to book multiple hotel rooms for your brood, you'll get ample space, a fully furnished kitchen if you want to cook your own meals, and amenities such as a pool, a deck with a grill, and a patio. Rates are usually comparable to (or even less expensive than) area hotels. I recently wrote a blog compiling a group of vacation rental sites offering deals; check the latest offerings to see what's available for your upcoming trip.

If you're looking for destinations that are great for kids, consider taking your family to Washington, D.C., or St. Louis, Missouri, this year. Both cities are full of affordable hotels, free things to do, and kid-friendly attractions that appeal to a wide variety of ages. Destination DC, the tourism board for the nation's capital, has put together a site specifically for family travelers, as a well as a list of free and nearly free activities and attractions. St. Louis for Kids rounds up great attractions for families that can be done on a budget. Additionally, be sure to check out the St. Louis Family Attractions Card website featuring more than $1,000 worth of printable coupons for lodging, dining, and entertainment options around town. For other family destinations, go to the local CVB website for deals, packages, and ideas for affordable things to do.

Flashpacking

Never heard of "flashpacking"? Much like "staycations" of last year, flashpacking is simply a marketing term to encapsulate a growing traveler trend. In this case, a "flashpacker" is a type of traveler who is similar to a backpacker, but one who prefers bare-bones transportation (such as low-cost airlines, second-class rail service, etc.), and will spend a little more for a decent room and a bath.

I didn't know it, but I've been a flashpacker for years, long before it was trendy. Here are some great resources if you're a budget traveler while on the road, but a bit more discerning when it comes to accommodations.

If you're headed to Europe, check out hotels on EuroCheapo.com. All hotels are geared toward budget travelers and have been personally vetted by EuroCheapo's editorial staff. I've used them for trips in the past and found their accommodations choices to be clean, centrally located, and (indeed) cheap.

Hostels are another option to consider, and need not be the crowded, bunker-style situation you may have experienced during college study-abroad days. Senior Editor Christine Sarkis has advocated hostelling for adults, and recommends good sites to begin your search. For the ultimate no-frills budget traveler, a hostel may be the ideal accommodations choice.

B&Bs can also be a good option for the flashpacking set. You'll get a room and breakfast included (and sometimes afternoon refreshments, too) for added value. Bed&Breakfast.com has compiled a list of Cool Summer Savings deals at participating inns across the country. (To find the latest promos, go to "Cool Summer Savings" from the drop-down menu.) Deals are currently available in Cape Cod, New Orleans, Vermont, and more.

Great exchange rates

In previous years, I've written features about alternatives to Europe (because the dollar was so weak against the euro). This year, however, it's a different story. With economies worldwide taking a hit, the dollar is doing much better in former budget-buster destinations such as England and other Western European countries.

Your dollar will go far in Iceland this summer, from hotels to restaurants, attraction admissions to live entertainment. The country's recent economic woes create an environment that is very welcoming to tourists, and also enables a luxury experience that can be done on the cheap. Or, if you want to branch out beyond Iceland, Icelandair is currently offering an Iceland Stopover deal, which allows you to include a stop in Reykjavik for no extra charge. If you're interested in seeing Iceland in addition to another European destination, this deal is a great value.

England, prohibitively expensive in previous years, is now a good option for budget vacationers. At press time, 1 euro was exchanging at about $1.45, a very decent rate. Vacation deals are affordable, too: go-today.com has an assortment of trips to choose from, including a "London at Its Best" promo featuring round-trip airfare, six nights' accommodations, daily breakfast, and hotel taxes and fees from $949 for summer. If you also want to explore the countryside, consider the "England Fly & Drive" package starting at $849 in summer, including round-trip airfare to London, a seven-day Hertz car rental with unlimited mileage, local taxes, and airfare fuel surcharges.

Other destinations where the dollar does well include Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Liberty Travel is having a huge Summer Vacation Sale, with up to 75% off vacations around the world. At press time, offers included $179 for three-night vacations to Halifax, Nova Scotia; $479 for five-night packages to Mexico's Riviera Nayarit; and $765 for four-night all-inclusive vacations to Costa Rica, among many other deals.

National parks

Accessibility and affordability are big trends this year. With many national parks within a drive away, and also offering affordable admission and accommodations (campsites and lodges are usually much cheaper than area hotels), national parks can be a great option for budget-oriented travelers. The biggest trend I've seen so far are early-bird specials, so you'll want to act fast to take advantage of these good deals.

If you can get away in early summer, Xanterra Parks & Resorts is offering Yellowstone Summer Getaway Packages including lodging, daily breakfast, a welcome gift, and a discount card redeemable at area restaurants, gift shops, and tour operators. A two-night minimum stay is required, and rates start at $139 per person for packages at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel from May 29 through June 17. Other deals at Xanterra's Yellowstone lodges are also available.

Shenandoah National Park's resorts and lodges have a host of accommodations packages, including "Early Bird Packages" from $104 per night through June 25, an "Explorer Package" including a bag lunch and trail maps for $128 per night for stays from April into either September or November (depending on the resort), and a "Blue Ridge Package" including breakfast and dinner from $198 for stays from April 12 through November 24.

You can search for additional promotions and special offers at your national park of choice by visiting the National Park Service website, as well as Xanterra, the lodging company for popular parks such as the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon.

"Repeat" vacations

When money is tight, people tend to spend on familiar values—things they know they like. The same holds true for vacations. This year, I'm hearing that travelers are planning to return to tried-and-true destinations, rather than explore new unknowns. Since many families tend to gather in Orlando, the Outer Banks, and Cape Cod in summer, I've rounded up a few deals for these always-popular locales.

The Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors' Bureau (CVB) has put together a Bundles of Free Smiles campaign featuring free deals and discounts at area hotels and vacation rentals, golf courses, restaurants, attractions, and more. Sample deals include a free kid's gator tour admission with two paying adults, kids' prices for adults on select admissions at SeaWorld Orlando, and a free third night at the Best Western Lake Buena Vista Resort in the Walt Disney World Resort.

The Outer Banks CVB has compiled a listing of seasonal savings. At press time, deals included 15% off stays at the Fin 'N Feather Waterside Inn, buy-one-get-one-free meals at the Coastal Provisions Market, and discounted admission to the Outer Banks Music Showcase. More deals, especially lodging offers, are also available.

Cape Cod gets in on summer travel promotions with packages, deals, and last-minute offers. Choose from 20% off five-night stays at Beaconlight Guest House, 15% off one-night stays at the Whalewalk Inn & Spa, and 14% off week-long stays at the Lands End Inn, among many other options.

Additionally, if you're planning to return to a tried-and-true vacation spot, and are planning on staying at a property you've visited before, call and ask if any "repeat visitor" deals are available. Many lodging establishments offer special rates for frequent or repeat guests. Be sure to call a hotel's front desk (not a central reservations line) to request these bargains; for vacation rentals, contact the owner or property manager directly to ask for a discount.

Road tripping

With airfare fees adding up and gas moderately priced compared to last year, many travelers are hitting the road this summer. The classic U.S. road trip can offer great savings, stunning scenery, and the chance to catch up with old friends along the way.

Hertz has a variety of deals for weekends or week-long trips, including 50% off weekend deals or $35 off weekly rentals through June 30. As Hertz regularly renews its promotions, I expect these or similar offers will be available for July and August rentals. Check the Hertz website regularly for updates.

If you're hitting the road and want to stay at a B&B, many innkeepers will reward you for your road trip. Ask your innkeeper if he or she is participating in BedandBreakfast.com's " Tanks for Traveling" promotion. Current offers include a seventh-night-free at Wishing Well Historic Cottage in Niagara-on-the-Lake; a complimentary dinner for two and $25 off any spa service at the Knucklehead Inn in Cornell, California; and free fuel and shopping gift cards at the Aldrich Guest House in Galena, Illinois, among many others. To see the latest offerings, select "Tanks for Traveling" from the dropdown menu on Bed&Breakfast.com's specials website.

If you're more a rider than a driver, Amtrak has plenty of deals for you. Save on Acela tickets (from $51 each way) through June 26 or get weekend fares from $32 each way; students, seniors, military members, veterans, and AAA members can also request discounted pricing.

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