May 30, 2006 -- Most of us have had the wonderfully chilling experience of committing to a summer vacation trip before checking the prices, waiting too late to get the best deals, then feeling compelled to pay a much larger price to get there and back.
Sometimes, in fact, there's not a lot of coin left over to enjoy the destination, which is why late May is the right time to go over some very effective ways of staying in charge of your travel budget.
Do I really want (or need) to go there? If the roundtrip fares to your destination now require a second mortgage to afford, you need to ask yourself whether perhaps, there isn't a better place to go? Whether your initial target was Cabo, Honolulu, or London, there could be another cool place you've been wanting to visit that might be reachable by road or rail, or a far cheaper plane ticket. If Europe is looking grim (and hot), remember that Australia and New Zealand are in winter during our summer, and the fares are typically more reasonable.
Look for the hotel/resort after finding the flight. Start searching for your flights before you start looking for the hotel and resort bargains. Too often summer travelers who aren't otherwise committed to a particular date obligate themselves for a hotel first only to discover that flying in and out on those dates is going to cost a small fortune. Try to stay flexible, and because the most volatile element is the airfare, tackle that one first.
If the hotel or resort dates are already set in concrete, just put more time into searching for the best fares, and do not just take the first thing that looks good on Expedia or one of the other third-party Web sites.
Also, try to start and end your trip in the middle of the week, because most everyone else is looking for weekend travel.
Which makes more financial sense: flying, driving or rail? If you live along the eastern corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., and your destination is in the same vicinity, you already know to check out the Amtrak fares and schedules. The same is true for travel from those areas to and from Florida, because in most cases we're not talking about using half your vacation time en route.
In some instances, flying one way and going by rail the other makes economic sense. For shorter distances up to 300 miles (especially if your destination isn't near a large airport), driving may still be your best method. In any event, if time isn't a major factor, rail travel even clear across the United States is great fun and a very civilized way to go. The price for roomettes and rooms can get steep, however, especially if you're traveling alone, and I do not recommend Amtrak for a trip more than 20 hours without a room.
The drawbacks on ground travel of course begin with the extra time it takes to drive or go by train, but in the case of driving, you need to realistically factor in the insane cost of gasoline this summer as well as all the tolls and extras inherent to road travel. For instance, a 20 miles per gallon 300-mile round trip that cost less than $60 last year for gas alone will cost you around $100 this summer. The difference in a 3,000-mile round trip then becomes $400! Plus, remember that you're at least one order of magnitude safer in the air than on the road.
If you're still going to fly, prepare to do an evening of research on the Web. Flexibility in departure and return dates yields the best bargains. Most of the travel sites now have some form of ability for you to indicate that you're flexible enough on your departure and return dates for them to check prices either side of your target date. Sometimes the resulting savings can be many hundreds of dollars.
Keep in mind that the people who run Expedia, Travelocity, etc., are getting better all the time at creating a sense of extreme urgency regarding any lower fares to get you to buy right now! Expedia, for example, will typically put a notice over a particular combination of flights at a discounted fare indicating that there are only one or two tickets left at the price. The problem is, there may well be a better price or sequence of flights on another site, including the airline's own site, so jumping for an immediate sale is a pure gamble.
You could come back later ready to buy only to find things $100 more expensive, or you could find a better combination of flights and fares. It's probably not a bad idea, though, to at least look at the other sites first. It's also very important to remember that flights flown by certain discount airlines -- especially Southwest -- will never be shown on the major third-party Web sites. To get Southwest's information -- which you should always do if flying to or from an area they serve -- you go to www.iflyswa.com For JetBlue it's www.jetblue.com.
It's not always true that you can get a better deal by using the individual airlines' sites (such as United, American, Delta, etc.,) but experienced, bargain-hunting travelers always check those sites if for no other reason than the fact that accurate information on seat selection is more likely to be available on the airline's Web pages.
One thing is very true: If you have a major problem with your flight, you'll usually get far more attentive service if you've booked directly with that airline. Third-party site customers are often treated like lepers even by airlines that rely on their business, and hotels in particular can act very ugly when you have a problem with a booking made through a third-party site.
Plus, in at least the case of one such site, have a problem and you'll be dealing with a clueless individual in New Delhi or Manila, Philippines, who will tell you that there is no supervisor available when you need one. To be fair, some major U.S. carriers such as Delta are also complicit in outsourcing what used to be known as customer service functions to offshore personnel.
Using airline Web sites can also help you ferret out more intelligent information by revealing -- through the seat maps and what's available for booking -- how full a particular flight is getting.
A half full flight only a week or less away is a thorn in the side of the yield management gurus at the airline, and they will be more likely to drop the price or create a special deal in the week before departure to fill more of those seats. If you log on and see 40 percent of the seats available for seat selection, that means this is a flight to watch.
They may not post a last-minute bargain fare, but it is more likely. This gets especially important if you've waited to within seven days of your targeted travel date and find your desired flight is still showing 30 percent to 40 percent empty. That means it's a reasonable gamble to wait a few days longer and watch the airline's site for a sudden special drop in fares.
Booking hotels. While the third-party packagers make it easy to search a galaxy of choices, they also purposefully make it difficult to get the direct phone numbers of those hotels and resorts because they don't want you booking directly.
As a rule, anything they don't want you to do is something you should explore, and in the case of phone numbers, hey, you're already on the Web! Just pull up Google and type in the hotel's name and address (or city) and that facility (or the chain's) Web site should pop up and provide you the number.
Call direct and see whether you can better the deal it's offering through the third-party site. Sometimes that works very well when you're closer to departure day, the hotel or bed and breakfast is small, and there are rooms going that are for the days you want. Just be sure that you're talking to someone who has authority to make a decision on the spot.
Caveat emptor. That, of course, is the old Latin phrase meaning "Let the buyer beware" (or cautious, or suspicious, or even paranoid at times). Remember that the marketers out there try to make it easy for you to spend more money than you should. Time invested in research pays big dividends, and the Web gives us all the ability to be just about as effective as the travel agents of yesteryear.
By the way, great travel agents still exist, but they make so little on airline tickets they either have to charge extra fees or spend very little time doing the research.