Sept. 25, 2010 -- The sweet memories of summer vacation may be fading, but that doesn't mean travel season has to end too. In fact, fall is one of the best times to travel, as many airlines and hotels try to fill their books between the summer and winter vacation seasons.
?But, with rates falling faster than the autumn leaves, how do you hone in on the hottest deals happening right now? Fortunately, there are plenty of ways the social web can help you save money on major travel expenses like airfare, lodging and car rentals.
Read on for ways to save money on every leg of your trip, from take off to lights out.
Every airline, from JetBlue to United to Virgin, seems to be jumping on the social networking bandwagon these days. You can follow them all on Twitter or Facebook for good, last-minute deals on flights they're looking to fill. Check out these master lists of all the airlines on both networks to make finding your favorites even easier:
For a more diverse selection of deals, follow an aggregator like CheapestAirfare or AirFareWatchdog, which feature offers from multiple companies at once. There's also the Twitter-sanctioned EarlyBird account, which has previously featured major discounts from Twitter advertising partner JetBlue, and has plans to release more travel deals in the future.
Another good resource is FareCompare, a site where you can see a map of multiple Twitter-based airfare deals happening at the same time. You can also "Like" FareCompare on Facebook to get deals sent directly to your Facebook stream all day long. And, if there's a specific city that you like to visit or fly out of, you can find a feed from Fly.com that features fares for that particular place, like NYCFares, ChicagoFlightDeals and DenverFlightDeals. They even have a Twitter list of all their city-specific fare alerts, so you can browse deals from all over or find an account that's listing flights for your city of choice.
Aggregator sites are still the way to go when it comes to surfing for hotels on the web. Sure, a single hotel is likely to post some special offers on their site from time to time, but you're bound to get a better deal if you search multiple sites at once to compare their coupons.
Online coupon company EBates recently released a service that helps you do just that. Additionally, if you book through Ebates, you become eligible for easy cash back rebates on whatever you spend. Similar sites like Kayak, GetARoom and TravelZoo allow you to search all sorts of offers at the same time and quickly compare rates on everything from luxury hotel rooms to amusement park admissions.
Private sale site Jetsetter.com – an offshoot of Gilt Groupe – lets you sign up to receive exclusive e-mails full of deals and discounts from the best luxury travel brands. For luxury deals, you can also check out Off & Away, which lets you bid on high-end room rates in an eBay-style auction format. Many of these sites also offer RSS feeds, so you can keep a constant stream of assorted travel deals coming into your regular RSS reader.
Another great way to get access to multiple hotel and attraction deals at once is to follow the social networking profiles of a company with many properties, like Joi De Vivre Hotels, Mandarin Oriental Hotels and W Hotels, who have locations around the world and loyalty programs that can mean big discounts during the off season. These sorts of deals are also starting to pop up more and more on services Foursquare and Whrrl, as hotels look to capitalize on the popularity of location-based social networks by offering special rewards to customers who check in regularly. Similarly, you can sign up for TopGuest, a service that turns check-ins from all of your services – including Twitter, Facebook and Gowalla – into points that earn you perks from any hotel loyalty programs you're a member of.
Finally, if you have a specific destination in mind, one of the best quick tricks for tracking down great lodging is to Google newly-opened hotels in the area. A brand new hotel looking to book up its rooms and build up its reputation is likely to charge a lot less in its first year or two than it will once it has already made a name for itself.
You could significantly cut your lodging costs by skipping the hotels entirely. For example, instead of booking a hotel, you can find a couch to crash on at CouchSurfing.org. Advocates of couchsurfing say it allows them to meet new people in the place they're traveling to and get access to locals-only experiences they may not have found otherwise. Plus, it's almost always a whole lot less expensive than a hotel room.
Alternatively, you can find someone to swap houses with at HomeExchange or HomeLink, and get the benefit of becoming a temporary resident of your vacation destination — cooking your own meals, interacting with neighbors and enjoying the comforts of a home — even if it's not your own. Even if you don't want to swap your home for a stranger's, you still have plenty of similar options at short-term vacation rental sites like AirBnB, VRBO and HomeAway, where you can often book lodging for a lot less than what you'd pay for a hotel, especially during non-peak travel times.
Either way, you'll likely pay less than what you'd shell out for a hotel room, and you'll definitely save money on meals and activities by having a "home base" where you can cook, eat and hang out. During the fall season, many more gorgeous vacation homes are available for rental, as their regular owners return to their full-time homes, making must-see destinations like the Hamptons more affordable for the average traveler.
Once you get to your destination, you have to get around. Social media can save you money on that as well. Use Google Maps to plan public transportation routes in a strange city or save on cab fare by finding the fastest route to your destination. If you're driving yourself, use Bing's Gas Prices app to figure out the cheapest place to fuel up for your big trip. You can also use sites like ZimRide and RideShare to find people to share the driving load, and cost, on the way to your destination, or from one attraction to another.
While enroute, do some social media research on your destination, or use the time to sign up for Groupon, Gilt Groupe or LivingSocial to check out daily deals waiting for you when you arrive. Often, you'll find great prices on food and attractions this way. You can always cancel your subscription when you leave that city, if need be.
Just because summer is over doesn't mean your fabulous travel plans have to be too. Thanks to the combo of off-season fall travel deals and social media sites that help you track them, an impromptu excursion doesn't have to break the bank. Affordable travel means more travel. Who doesn't love that?
Mollie Vandor is the Product Manager for Ranker.com and Media Director for Girls in Tech LA. You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, where she writes about the web, the world and what it's like to be a geek chic chick.