When Kathy and Dennis Hines decided to take their family to California on a two-week summer vacation, they set out to cut costs. With three children in tow, they realized even a small savings would add up when multiplied by five. Their first coup was to score $150 round-trip tickets from Boston to Los Angeles on Priceline.com. Because they were flexible, they felt comfortable bidding sight unseen. To their surprise, they not only got the fare they wanted, but the dates and nonstop flights as well—on a major carrier. Having saved hundreds at the outset, they decided to add visits to several theme parks (using discounted tickets) and take a side trip to Mexico.
"We set a budget of $100 a night for hotels, and except for one night, we stuck to that," Dennis said. He also found car rental and hotel deals by bidding online. What the Hines's came to realize is that buying travel is increasingly like purchasing an auto. The rules are similar: Do your homework, ask friends for referrals, try to pay less than the asking price and always look for discounts.
Here are 20 of our favorite tips to help you save on your next vacation.
1. Stay grounded.
Your airline ticket is frequently the biggest expense, so research options. If you've booked a cruise, new and revitalized home ports such as Galveston and New Orleans may be within driving distance. Or hit the road. Train buffs can let Amtrak do the driving; kids ride for half price year-round (with an adult). Take advantage of AAA and other association discounts at hotels and attractions.
2. Fly free.
Consider building award mileage by using credit cards linked to airlines, and be sure every family member has his or her own frequent flyer account. Just one round-trip to Hawaii from the East Coast can earn nearly half your next domestic ticket. Some airlines offer points for booking online or using automated check-in. Ask if the carrier partners with others—it may help points add up faster.
3. Shop for air deals.
I recently saved $400 on a coast-to-coast ticket by comparison shopping on Expedia, Orbitz and the airlines' own Web sites. Don't overlook low-fare lines like Southwest, Song and JetBlue. And look at secondary airports, such as Providence, Rhode Island (instead of Boston's Logan), or Long Beach Airport (instead of LAX). Fly midweek and stay over Saturday night for the best rates.
4. The packaged-tour advantage.
We're not talking about the bus tours of our parents' days. Today's packages can be as simple as discounted air, airport transport, hotels and tickets to attractions. Prices can be as much as 25 percent less than if each component were priced out separately. And consider a travel agent—most now charge fees, but a savvy one with access to bulk air deals and discounted hotel rooms can still save you a bundle. Check the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTAnet.com) for an agent match by zip code or area of expertise.
5. Book early — or late.
Suppliers like to offer early-booking discounts, so it's a good idea to beat your fellow vacationers to the deals before high season kicks in. On the other hand, last-minute deals are also available, when suppliers offer deeply discounted leftover inventory. Check out Hotwire.com, lastminutetravel.com and 11hourvacations.com. As always, read the fine print.
6. Be flexible with dates — and locations.
Hotels, airlines and cruise companies know when school is out and raise prices accordingly. If you can travel at nonpeak or shoulder seasons, you'll be surprised at what a difference a week makes. If you just want a sunny beach, keep an open mind. If your nearest gateway has great air access to the Bahamas, don't get your heart set on Brazil. Also, the Caribbean traditionally drops prices in summer. For online deals: www.onecaribbean.org and www.doitcaribbean.com
7. Sleep cheap.
Look for deals on Expedia and Hotels.com. And always bargain for a better rate by simply asking a hotel, "Is that your best price?" Members of AAA, labor unions and other organizations may be eligible for special discounts, but you have to ask!
8. Let the kids stay free.
Free accommodations for children (sharing a room with adults) has become the industry norm—about 84 percent of U.S. hotel chains had a kids-stay-free policy in 2001. Ask the cut-off ages to make sure you qualify; be sure there is no charge for rollaways or cribs. Fire codes may prevent you from all fitting in one room, so ask when booking. Check out www.hotelfun4kids.com for family-friendly hotel deals.
9. Get a second-room discount.
If you can't all fit in one room, ask for a discount for an adjoining room. About a fifth of chain hotels offer 50 percent off (on a seasonal or promotional basis).
10. Splurge on expensive hotels.
"Value" isn't always synonymous with "cheap." If you have always wanted to stay at a Four Seasons, a Ritz-Carlton or Atlantis, Paradise Island, don't rule them out without checking for deals. Upscale hotels are increasingly wooing the family market with promotions packed with valuable dining and add-ons, particularly when the hotel isn't busy. Also, booking a room on a club floor, although more expensive, might be cheaper than dining out.
11. Investigate kids-eat-free packages.
Children are notorious for picking at meals, so don't spend too much on restaurants. Some chains, like Holiday Inn, have a kids-eat-free policy (under 12). Look for free breakfasts (buffets are best) and ask for suggestions on inexpensive local eateries.
12. Cruise for less.
Its all-inclusive nature and regularly available deals, including "children sail free" specials, keep cruising affordable, according to Bob Sharak, executive vice president of Cruise Lines International Association. Shore excursions tend to be pricey, so research your alternatives. (Beachcombers can save by taking a taxi to the nearest beach.) Although last-minute deals can offer great discounts, some ships do sell out, so book early for the best values, suggests Sharak.
13. All-inclusive can be cheaper.
Not only are your meals free, but many resorts also offer free activities. Breezes and Beaches are two of the best known. But don't overlook Club Med (www.clubmed.com), which now offers a range of family villages and some great deals, including free kids' activities: sailing, snorkeling, kayaking, even hip-hop lessons. Kids can participate in circus acts and theatrical shows, and you can all enjoy nightly entertainment.
14. Look for free children's programs.
Increasingly, hotels and resorts are offering children's programs with a variety of supervised activities. Hotels as diverse as the Mexican Presidente-Intercontinental chain and the Four Seasons offer free kids clubs year-round, while others operate free programs during peak holiday periods.
15. Rent bargain villas or condos.
They offer more room, privacy and a homier feel than a hotel room for comparable or even lower prices. Eat some meals in and save money. Hideaways International (www.hideaways.com) costs $145 a year to belong but offers discounts on villa rentals. Or try Resort Quest (www.resortquest.com). Marriott Vacation Club (www.marriott.com) rents villas from its pool of fractional ownership properties.
16. Hit the slopes — off-season.
Alpine slides, water-play areas, horseback riding, stunning views from gondolas are a few of the attractions that draw families to ski resorts in summer. Active families with older kids can mountain bike, rock climb and bungee jump. Deals are abundant. Time your stay to coincide with summer festivals.
17. Camping cuts costs.
18. Pack provisions.
Give each child a small backpack with water bottle, juice boxes, granola bars and other favorites to keep costs down. Toss in a dime-store raincoat—it can cost 10 times more if the skies open up.
19. Exploit insider info.
Follow trends and deals by subscribing to e-newsletters and checking sites such as www.familytravelforum.com.
20. Buy travel insurance.
Kids get sick, suppliers go bankrupt and weather turns bad—lots of things can derail a trip. Buy third-party insurance from a travel agent, a travel insurance company—such as Travel Guard (www.travelguard.com) or Travelex (www.travelex-insurance.com)—or buy prepackaged insurance direct from supplier. Compare policies at www.insuremytrip.com.