The temperature outlook for this winter is looking chilly in the U.S. northern Plains, but above average temperatures are forecast for the southwest, south central U.S. and parts of the southeast, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. What does this mean when it comes to planning your winter getaway? Weather may be inconsistent but creating a blueprint for efficient, money-saving trips doesn't have to be. Here are seven tips to ensure a great winter holiday.
Book a package deal. Many winter resorts offer affordable stay-and-ski package deals, perfect for those traveling with a big group. Deals typically include a free hotel night, free lift tickets or discounts on food and drinks. When evaluating different packages, look for those that offer unique value-added options, such as spa treatments or kids-stay-free deals in addition to room and airfare discounts. Be sure to read the fine print!
Avoid peak travel times. Don't wait until the last minute to book your winter vacation. Resorts and flights tend to book up well in advance, so try to travel at the beginning or end of the season when hotels and airlines still have vacancies, or during the middle of the week. Research your destination's prices by week to discover when the cheapest travel times are – likely the weeks before Christmas or directly following New Year's. Many travel websites display airfares for the days just before and after your first-choice travel dates. You're likely to find lower fares on days that are the least popular with most travelers, which might be one to three days before your first choice. If you can be flexible, you're likely to get a better deal.
Understand baggage fees. If you're planning a ski vacation and want to bring your own equipment, baggage fees can add up for a family of four or more. Seek out an air carrier that does not charge baggage fees or find one that allows the first checked bag onboard for free. Also, consider leaving the skis and snowboards at home and renting your gear when you arrive on the slopes. Depending on the length of your trip, this could save you a sizeable amount.
Skip the hotels or opt for rental property. Save money on accommodations by booking a vacation rental versus a hotel or resort. Rentals can typically sleep more people and are perfect for large families or multiple families splitting costs. Check out vacation rental sites to see what deals are available where you're traveling.
Save money on meals. Dining out is part of the fun of a vacation, but it can drain your wallet quickly. When booking your accommodations, look for free breakfast offers or resorts that have kitchenettes in each unit so you can cook your own meals and pack lunches. Even cooking just one meal a day can save a significant amount of money while allowing you the flexibility of accommodating picky eaters or special diets.
Ditch airport car rentals. Airport car rentals are almost always more expensive. If you're flying home to visit your family, ask someone to pick you up from the airport and drive you to a neighborhood car rental facility. The prices are usually lower, and it's always nice to be greeted by loved ones when you step off the plane.
Take a staycation. Plan a short road trip and only pay for the cost of gas instead of airline tickets. You can find some great deals on hotels and restaurants within an hour or two of home through daily deal sites. Ask your hotel whether it offers discounts to area attractions, and check the local newspaper for free events.
For most of the country, winter may involve inclement weather, dropping temperatures and battling ice storms for three-months straight, but that doesn't mean we can't escape it all. Setting budgets and being diligent about sticking to the plan will make sure your vacation glow stays with you long after you return from holiday.
Hitha Prabhakar is a consumer spending and retail analyst and Mint.com spokeswoman, the leading web and mobile money management tool that helps people understand and do more with their money.