Bargain hunters will need to be craftier when booking a trip if they want to get the best prices this year. It's no secret that airfares are up and added fees for everything from checked bags to exit-row seats are pushing the cost of flying higher. On top of that, hotel bargains are expected to be harder to come by as business travelers begin to return, diminishing the need for hotels to discount rooms in major cities.
But that doesn't mean a year in front of your television. There are still plenty of ways to cut costs. Here are 11 strategies - and some useful websites - to help you save on travel this year.
1 Shop 'private sales'
A growing number of websites, including www.sniqueaway.com, www.tablethotels.com and www.jetsetter.com have flash sales of 20 percent to 60 percent off hotel packages to travelers on an invitation-only basis. Jetsetter, for example, recently offered a Friday night in January at the Angler's, a boutique hotel in Miami, for $255 a night, down from the $359 offered at the hotel's site. Another site, www.tripalertz.com, works like Groupon for travel, meaning that the more people who book a deal, the lower the rate. For example, a four-night, all-inclusive stay at the Hilton Papagayo Costa Rica Resort & Spa was initially offered to members for $1,496, or 15 percent off, in December. After 55 bookings, the price dropped to $1,220. At TripAlertz and www.livingSocial.com, which offers last-minute getaways, all you have to do is create an account to access the deals. A Google search for "Snique Away invite" turned up a registration form for SniqueAway.com that got me in.
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2 Buy on a Tuesday
Most airlines begin sales on Monday evenings, and by the next day other airlines have usually matched the lowered fares on the same routes, said Anne McDermott, editor at www.farecompare.com, which tracks price trends. For example, Virgin America had a sale on Monday, Dec. 13, with one-way fares as low as $79 on some routes, according to Farecompare. The next day, there were sales from AirTran, Southwest and American, with one-way fares from $59. Because sales are hard to predict, travelers looking for the best deal should start their searches three to four months in advance, when airlines begin to look closely at which routes may need a sale to fill seats.
Practically every travel site includes a box at checkout for a promotional discount code. Sites such as www.promotionalcodes.com or www.couponwinner.com organize such codes into categories so that you can search specifically for airline, car rental or hotel deals. A recent search turned up codes for deals such as $94 flights between New York and New Orleans, 15-percent discounts on Avis weekly car rentals and $75 off of three-night Westin Hotels packages.
4 Ask for a refund
Many airlines will refund the difference in price if the fare drops after you purchase a ticket (minus a change fee). Www.yapta.com helps get you that refund by tracking the price of your ticket and sending you an e-mail or Tweet when the price drops so that you can call the airline to claim the credit. A new site, www.autoslash.com, offers a similar service for car rentals.
5 Avoid roaming charges
Skype and Truphone offer free apps for making cheap international calls using Wi-Fi, with rates that start at pennies per minute. You can pay as you go or sign up for monthly plans to make unlimited calls in certain countries for a flat fee: $13.99 a month for Skype calls to land lines and mobile phones in more than 40 countries, or $12.95 a month for Tru calls in 38 countries with TruUnlimited. Another option: the Vonage Mobile app for Facebook allows travelers to make free international calls over Wi-Fi to Facebook friends who also download the app.
6 Change your credit card
Most U.S. banks charge currency conversion fees, typically up to 3 percent when you use your credit or debit card outside the United States. But there are some exceptions. Capital One does not charge foreign transaction fees, and Chase recently began waiving the fees on its British Airways Visa Signature Card, its Hyatt Card and the Priority Club Select Visa.
7 Save on parking your car
The site www.bestparking.com steers drivers toward the cheapest parking at off-airport lots near 79 North American airports. (Charlotte's isn't on the list, but Raleigh's RDU is.) Rates are updated frequently, and sold-out lots are highlighted. A recent search for parking near Newark Liberty International Airport offered a snapshot of rates and locations on a map. The Renaissance Hotel lot was among the cheapest at $12 for 24 hours. There is also a free app for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry users.
8 Wait a week
Avoid the crowds and save by traveling the week after a major holiday. A five-night ski vacation in Breckenridge, Colo., during the last week of December was priced at $1,988 a person, including airfare from Chicago, at www.orbitz.com. For the next week, the same trip was listed at $1,037 a person. Similarly, a vacation including airfare from New York and five nights at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort dropped from $821 to $580. Keep an eye peeled for what's discounted the weeks after Valentine's Day (Feb. 14), Easter (April 24 this year) and Memorial Day (May 30).
Though many hotels say that they offer their best rates online, it pays to ask the front desk for a lower rate. My colleague Seth Kugel regularly uses this tactic, as he pointed out in a column last summer: "I arrive with a solid reservation but then check out five or six other hotels and go back and forth between them in an attempt to set off a price war." The strategy saved him $20 a night in Leon, Nicaragua. I have had similar success over the phone with reservation agents at New York hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton New York and 60 Thompson.
10 Travel like a student
Student travel agencies such as STA Travel, StudentCity and StudentUniverse have begun to extend their low prices to nonstudents and older travelers. Though some of the deepest discounts are offered only to travelers enrolled in an academic program, recent college graduates can often save 10 percent to 25 percent with "youth fares." For example, a recent search for flights in March on www.statravel.com, which limits certain deals to nonstudents younger than 26, turned up seats for $926 round-trip on V Australia Airlines. The best rates for the same dates on Kayak.com were $1,187. Though it is not common for older travelers to use student travel agencies, it is possible to do so. There were no age restrictions for a discounted four-day "Inca Trail" trek with STA Travel for $674 a person, down from $899.
11 Don't pay to check a bag
Checking bags can quickly add up, with airlines charging between $15 and $35 a bag. Delta's SkyMiles-branded American Express card allows you and up to eight others on the same reservation to each check a bag at no cost. And American Express introduced a travel rewards card - the Blue Sky Preferred Credit Card - that offers travelers an annual $100 allowance to cover checked baggage, in-flight meals, entertainment or Wi-Fi purchases and other fees, on any airline. If nothing else, travel lighter with less luggage.