When people find out I write for a travel publication, I inevitably get asked about good deals for upcoming vacations. My standard reply is that it all depends on what you like to do, and the conversation goes from there. I rarely advocate just going with rock-bottom prices, and instead suggest that travelers do a bit of investigation (both personal and trip-oriented) before planning a vacation. Essentially, a good deal or a great value can only be determined by you—but there are universal benchmarks to go by.
As you're starting your trip research, always consider the following:
Once you have answers to these questions, you should have a good idea of what type of vacation you're planning, from which accommodations type is right for you to how light or active your itinerary should be. Let your answers inform how you plan the rest of your trip, particularly in determining the best value for each travel component.
Airfare is the most rigid travel area, as far as measuring value goes. You'll be subject to factors beyond your control, such as seasonality, supply and demand, and airline fees; but there are a few areas you can tweak to get the best value for your travel dollars.
Always start tracking flights early to get the best sense of prices, number of daily flights, and airlines that offer routes to your destination. If your travel dates aren't set in stone, take advantage of the many flexible-date search tools out there to see when prices are lowest.
Decide if you want a direct flight (if available) or are willing to connect. Often, connecting flights are cheaper, although you will add more time to your journey and risk the chance of getting waylaid if there are any delays or cancellations.
Once you've zeroed in on a few flight possibilities, determine the true cost of your ticket by calculating all applicable baggage, meal, and other fees. SmarterTravel's regularly updated Airline Fees: The Ultimate Guide can help you figure out what your final ticket cost will be, as well as compare true costs across competitor airlines to find the best value for your trip.
So many choices here--all-inclusive resorts, no-frills motels, multi-star hotel properties, bed and breakfasts, inns, vacation rentals, home exchanges--which is right for you? Accommodations tend to take up a big chunk of your budget, so focus first on the style of property you'd like. If you like solitude, you may gravitate more toward hotels or vacation rentals. If you like a social atmosphere, an all-inclusive resort (particularly those with group activities and entertainment options) or a B & B might be a good fit.