Whether you want to frolic in ocean waves, take slow walks along country paths, or party in Las Vegas this summer, it's time to start making plans. Unlike last year, when deals were plentiful and the best ones often went to those who waited, this year rewards the early bird. Since there are fewer vacation discounts to be had, those who plan ahead—and choose their destinations and modes of travel strategically—are snagging the limited offers.
"More people are traveling, so you have to get in early. A lot of key destinations are starting to sell out," says Glen MacDonell, director of AAA Travel Services. Hotels, for example, often set aside just a handful of discounted rooms, and those get snapped up quickly. The same goes for airplane seats and cruise spots.
Travelers can also save money by scheduling their vacations during slower periods. "If you want to travel during peak times, you are really going to pay," says Chris McGinnis, an editor on Best Western's youmustbetrippin.com blog. For the July 4 weekend, he adds, airline fares have already risen. The price peaks are particularly noticeable this year because airlines have cut back on flight volume and discounts. "The cheap seats are going fast," he says.
Deals may be harder to find this year, but they still exist for those willing to do some work: Many hotels are hurting because of the dip in business travel, and as a result are offering great deals on weekends. According to the AAA Leisure Travel Index, three-diamond hotel rates in Orlando, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles are down 16, 9, and 6 percent respectively, for example.
With some advance planning, travelers should be able to secure deals that are as good or better than the ones they found last year, but MacDonell cautions against being too stingy. "When it's vacation, we don't want to save too much money and run into a bad situation or risk," he warns. Here are more tips to help you balance the pursuit of a relaxing vacation against the limits of your bank account:
Take the car. While gas prices have been inching up this spring and will probably continue to do so this summer, experts don't expect prices to approach the record highs of 2008. That means you can save money by taking the car instead of flying to your destination, as long as it's no more than an eight-hour drive or so. MacDonell suggests crunching numbers to see if flying or driving is the cheaper choice. According to AAA Leisure Travel Index, airfares have increased an average of 9 percent over last year, with some routes—Atlanta to Chicago, for example—up a whopping 60 percent or more. If you are going to drive, gas comparison websites such asGasBuddy.com or GasPriceWatch.com can help you find the best prices in the area.
Take the train. The train is another viable option, especially for those in the Northeast, adds MacDonell, whose wife took his daughter's Girl Scouts troop from Orlando to Savannah for just $69 roundtrip per person. Amtrak sells special one-way fares Tuesday through Friday; check Amtrak's website under "weekly specials." Current discounts include deals on travel in Connecticut and Missouri.
[See U.S. News's 8 Best Cheap Summer Vacations.]
Travel on the weekends. It might sound counterintuitive to travel on the weekends alongside other leisure travelers, but if you're heading to a destination that's popular among business travelers, it can actually be the best way to get a good deal, says MacDonell. That's because companies have dramatically cut back on business travel, so these hotels are eager to make up for the losses by attracting families on the weekends. It's always a good idea to ask for a discount or coupon to the hotel's restaurant when making a reservation.
Go South, not East. While the dollar has been strengthening against the Euro—which means Europe is a good bargain right now—airfares are making it prohibitively expensive to get there, in some cases. McGinnis adds that airlines have cut back on seats reserved for frequent flyer mile holders, which means consumers might have to pony up the full price.