Aug. 9, 2010— -- 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:
- How active of a vacation do you want to have? Are you the type who wants to plop on a beach, enjoy a variety of different activities, or some blend of the two?
- Consider your traveling companions. What are their interests, preferences, and energy levels? Do their vacation expectations match up with yours?
- How much do you want to spend? In what areas do you want to splurge, and which components are you willing to cut back on?
- Will you be spending most of your time outdoors? How important is it to you to have ideal weather?
- How long do you want to be away? Are you able to tailor your budget and interests to fit your time requirement?
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.
Once you've chosen the type of place you want, look at the per-night price and what exactly it includes. Does the property have daily breakfast, parking, and Internet paid for with the nightly rate? Does it have amenities you'll take advantage of, such as a pool, a fitness center, laundry facilities, and the like? Is it located close to the action (e.g., a downtown city hotel) or is it more secluded? Do the check-in and check-out times work with your schedule? Don't necessarily jump at the lowest price--for just a few dollars more, you may find something that includes a host of extras that match your tastes.
Lastly, it's always a good idea to read user reviews from fellow travelers before making a reservation. SmarterTravel's sister site, TripAdvisor, has millions of traveler reviews and opinions to help you get a better sense of the property you're considering. I always read a good sampling (at least three to five pages worth of reviews) to see a cross-section of traveler experiences, and typically, by a few reviews in, I can tell which types of travelers are similar to me. Use the same judgment when reading reviews for the properties you're considering.
Like airfare, rental car pricing is a bit more rigid. Your price will be subject to which models of cars are available, the demand for the model you want to book, and local taxes and fees.
When renting a car, consider whether it makes more sense to rent from an airport or off-airport location. Oftentimes you can snag a better price by going off-airport, but what you save in dollars may get spent in time, by foregoing the convenience of the airport pickup and drop-off. Consider factors such as fuel efficiency, vehicle roominess, and add-on possibilities (such as GPS devices, roadside assistance services, and more). Compare apples to apples (like same car class and amenities) across providers to ensure you're getting the best price for the type of car you're hoping to rent.
Use similar benchmarks to those suggested in the airfare and hotel sections when researching vacation package bundles. Airfare-and-hotel packages can be a great way to save, but always make sure the properties included fit what you're looking for. Do a cost-analysis breakdown, checking the vacation package price and offerings to the same components (airfare, hotel, car, etc.) a la carte to see if you'll get a better deal by bundling or by purchasing each trip item separately. While in many cases you'll do better by going with a bundle, the only way to find out for sure is to deconstruct the package.
Whether you're a veteran cruiser or contemplating taking a cruise for the first time, there's a lot to consider before booking your next vacation. Beyond price, there are the ports of call, trip duration, cabin styles, on-ship atmosphere, food options, and more to think about. Cruise Critic, another sister site of SmarterTravel, offers answers to these and questions you hadn't even considered, and can help put you in touch with fellow cruisers and cruise experts to help you plan the best trip for your budget and interests.
How do you define value? What do you consider to be a great travel deal? Share your thoughts by submitting a comment below!
(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Hotwire.)
Sarah Pascarella is a Senior Editor for Smarter Travel and writes the Sarah's Travel Tips column. She shares the best advice for travelers on issues including booking, planning, comfort, safety, and convenience. SmarterTravel provides expert, unbiased information on timely travel deals, the best value destinations, and money-saving travel tips.