Vacation Planning in a Tight Economy
By Jason Alderman
Sharply rising gas prices are taking their toll on almost every aspect of our lives, from filling up the gas tank to shelling out more for food and other commodities. If you've started planning your next vacation, you've surely noticed that airfares and other travel–related costs have gone up as well.
So what can you do to keep vacation costs down? Try these tips:
Be flexible. During "shoulder seasons" (from Easter to summer and Labor Day through Thanksgiving), flights, hotels, rental cars and tourist attractions often are much cheaper than during peak seasons.
Flights departing on Saturday and midweek are often cheaper than the days most business travelers fly. Conversely, hotels often are cheaper on weekends, when business travelers have returned home; however, locations catering to leisure travelers are usually less expensive during the week.
Airfares are usually cheaper if you book online rather than by phone or travel agent. Websites like www.travelzoo.com, www.kayak.com and www.cheaptickets.com let you compare fares from various airlines (plus hotels and rental cars) although some low–cost airlines like Southwest don't participate.
If you can drop everything for a spontaneous getaway, you'll often find great last-minute deals on airfares or packages that include a hotel and rental car. Sign up for email alerts from your favorite airlines, hotel chains and car rental companies.
Also consider using out–of–the–way airports, which frequently offer less expensive flights than those at major airports. Rental car rates at these smaller airports may also be less, but factor additional fuel costs and road time into your plans.
Don't automatically rule out early–morning flights. Instead, investigate the "park and fly" options many motels near airports now offer. For a set rate, you can stay overnight, park your car for free and then catch a free airport shuttle. A family might save hundreds of dollars in reduced airfares. Just make sure the shuttle operates when you need it and verify the parking policy.
If you're taking a driving vacation, careful planning can lower costs. Get detailed, updated maps so you don't get lost and waste gas (AAA provides them free to members). Or plan your itinerary using online services like MapQuest, Google Maps or Yahoo Maps – keeping in mind that they don't necessarily provide the most direct routes. If you're renting a car, you may want one with a Global Positioning System (GPS) that gives driving directions.
Once you know your route, visit sites like www.gasbuddy.com and www.gaspricewatch.com, where motorists share tips on where to find low–priced fuel. Of course prices change constantly, but you may be able to find gas stations that routinely charge less than ones only blocks away. Stations directly off the highway are usually the most expensive.
A few other quick tips:
Be aware of airline charges for extra or heavy checked bags, which offset higher fuel costs.
Factor in sales and hotel taxes, rental car add–on charges and other fees that can add 20 to 40 percent to your tab. Ask for a full breakdown before booking a reservation.
Do a Web search for discount information on your destination's local transit, museums, restaurants and other attractions.
Most importantly, create a vacation budget. Visa Inc.'s free personal financial management site, Practical Money Skills for Life, features a summer travel budgeting center filled with tools to help you wisely plan your vacation (www.practicalmoneyskills.com/vacation).
You've earned your time off; just make sure your vacation doesn't hamper your other financial goals.
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