6 Ways to Save on Vacations

Use these strategies to make your next trip affordable.

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No one has to tell you that traveling is expensive. And it often seems more so, because much of the traveling we do is optional.

Sometimes we’re forced to travel for business, although you don’t have to worry too much about the cost in this case because you’re not paying for it. But no one has to go on vacation. And when you are paying your own way, you often have to pay higher prices than hotels and restaurants charge business customers.

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The most economical thing to do is stay home. Go on a staycation and take advantage of local attractions, cultural events, and restaurants and save a bundle on hotels, airplanes, and car rentals. But sometimes we just want to get away. Here is where you can go to find some bargains:

Join AAA or AARP. These organizations charge relatively small annual membership fees, and more than make up for them by offering discounts ranging from 5 to 20 percent on participating hotels, including most major chains. AAA and AARP can also get you discounts on Amtrak, rental cars, airport parking, and entry fees for many tourist attractions.

Sign up for a hotel honor points program. Hotel chains like Marriott and Hilton have loyalty programs that offer customers extra perks such as free breakfast or a welcome present as well as the opportunity to accumulate points for free nights. Typically, you can merge points from all the hotels in a chain. For example, a Marriott rewards program member can add up points from a stay at the pricey Marriott or Ritz-Carlton hotels as well as the more value-oriented Courtyard, Residence, and Fairfield Inns or any of the other dozen names in the Marriott family of hotels.

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Credit card cash-back programs. The traditional credit card rewards program offers airline miles as a bonus for spending money on the card. Now many other organizations including hotels, retail chains, and even educational institutions offer special promotions through affiliated credit cards. The simplest deals give you cash back on your purchases, usually 1 percent. Many cards offer special promotions for a limited time, such as 5 percent back on gas stations and hotels for a three-month period. Some cards provide extra discounts when buying on selected websites. Be careful, though. Those discounts can cost you dearly if you end up having to make a late payment or find yourself paying the expensive interest charges.

Search on the Internet. A number of websites offer special deals on hotels and airlines. Hotels.com, Expedia, Priceline, Kayak, Travelocity, Orbitz, and Hotwire all feature low prices on hotels, rental cars, and airlines. But it’s a good idea to also check the company website directly. Sometimes, especially if you qualify for an AAA discount, you get a better price directly from the hotel or car rental company than you do from the discount website.

Check out rent-by-owner websites. Cyberrentals, Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO), HomeAway, and Airbnb offer properties for rent directly from individual owners. Some websites, like Airbnb, require registration, but no fee. Most of these sites are geared toward longer rentals of a week or more, but not always. Road Scholar, formerly Elderhostel, is geared toward older people interested in lifelong learning. Through these sites you can often get more space for less money. However, the trade-off is that there is no daily maid service or hotel amenities.

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Go local. National chains offer consistent quality and service and predictable pricing. But sometimes a locally owned hotel or resort is a hidden gem. Check with your friends for recommendations. Try Tripadvisor or Yelp for customer reviews of hotels and restaurants in the area. Reviews by real customers are typically more honest than what you’d find on commercial sites or the hotel’s own website.

The Internet is a boon to travelers, offering lots of opportunities and many ways to shop for bargains. But don’t forget the old-fashioned way to find a great vacation spot at a reasonable price: Ask a friend.

Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement, and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.