Got a yen to hit the road this summer? Bargain-basement deals are hard to find at the height of the season, but there are ways to stretch your travel dollar. Here’s the rub: Saving money on summer travel means a lot of homework. Plus, if you’re locked into specific travel dates it will limit your ability to slash costs.
Airline-industry trends may crimp your budget, too. “The airline consolidation juggernaut has really pushed airfares up,” says George Hobica, president and founder of Airfarewatchdog, a low-airfare alert and advice site. “We don’t have Northwest competing against Delta, Continental competing against United,” he says. “People have to rethink what a low airfare is.”
You also should rethink a widely cited cost-cutting strategy: the popular idea that the airlines post the best airfares on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. That’s urban myth, Hobica says. “We see sales on Fridays and Thursdays and Mondays.” But timing does play a big part in stretching your travel dollars — specifically, your departure and return dates, where flexibility pays. Hobica cited a recent fare of $720 round-trip from Chicago to Beijing, for travel the first week of May. Any other week, that fare is closer to $1,500.
Here are some more strategies for saving on travel expenses:
Airfare usually is the biggest travel cost, so it makes sense to shop carefully and to pounce on a good price. Useful websites for comparing airfares include Momondo, Adioso and Airfarewatchdog — and all of them offer email alerts. (Unlike most websites, Airfarewatchdog includes Southwest and Allegiant Air.)
Bing.com/travel and Kayak offer “price trend” tools to estimate whether a particular airfare is likely to rise or fall, helping you to decide whether it’s a good time to buy. Google.com /flights/explore lets you easily see how fares vary by travel date.
Keep an eye on lesser-known carriers, including Allegiant Air for domestic trips; Norwegian Air Shuttle for trips from select U.S. cities to Europe; ArkeFly for direct flights to Amsterdam from Miami and Orlando; and XL Airways France for flights to France from various U.S. cities.
One caveat: Booking with a low-cost European airline can pose challenges if you need to make changes. They might be “hard to get in touch with if something goes wrong,” says Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommer Guides.
Skip the Hotel
These days, your accommodation may be your most adventurous travel choice. “When I’m traveling on my own I hardly ever stay in hotels anymore,” says Reid Bramblett, founder of travel-information website ReidsGuides.com. “The alternatives are always more interesting and usually cheaper.”
You could stay in a monastery or castle or on an Amish farm. Click on “Stay in alternative lodgings” on ReidsGuides.com for more ideas. Or, how about renting a room at Oxford University (UniversityRooms.com) or the London School of Economics (Lsevacations.co.uk)?
During school holidays “a lot of universities and colleges open up their dorms to make a little extra money,” Frommer says. A current listing on UniversityRooms.com offers rooms in Rome for one person starting at 33 euros ($46) a night and double rooms for 85 euros ($118), including continental breakfast.
Seeking a more rural experience? Switzerland’s Schlaf im Stroh program (Schlaf-im-stroh.ch/en) literally lets you sleep in the barn, starting at about 20 Swiss francs ($23) for an adult, including breakfast. Don’t worry: The animals sleep elsewhere.
A number of companies — Airbnb and others — offer low-cost stays in private homes. While some cities have been cracking down on this practice, the new rules have had little impact on travelers so far. “I don’t want to tell anybody to break the law, but it doesn’t seem to affect travelers,” Frommer says.
Some countries are great deals simply because the exchange rate is in your favor. For example, for an international adventure a little closer to home, consider Canada. “The loonie has been dropping against the dollar,” Frommer says. “It may be the summer to go to Canada.”
Plus, flights to Canada are cheaper this year, according to Kayak.com data on searches in January through March for summer travel. The average fare from U.S. cities to Toronto is down 7%, and fares to Vancouver are down 9% compared with last year. The U.S. dollar has also strengthened against the Japanese yen and Argentine peso, making both countries more affordable.
Time it Right
For domestic travel, consider national parks toward the end of August, Frommer says. “Many schools now start in August, so a lot of very popular family destinations like national parks and the communities that surround them empty out the last two weeks in August,” and hotel and other prices drop as a result, she says.
If your dates are firmly in June or July, consider destinations less traveled during the U.S. summer. Going to Mexico, the Caribbean or other popular winter destinations can bring your travel costs down, particularly on hotel stays, says Cindy Nelson, a manager in the leisure-travel division of Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Minneapolis. “Hoteliers will discount their rates in the summer to attract visitors there,” she says.
For European travel, go in May, September or October. Same goes for Alaska. “It’s a really popular summer destination,” Nelson says. Alaskan cruises in September “generally will be better priced than the midsummer dates.”
Think carefully about how you get around at your destination. For example, renting a car for a big-city stay is usually a budget-buster, Bramblett says, while paying for a packaged day tour can save money by delivering you to popular tourist sites for less than the cost of public transportation.
Try a Cruise
The recent spate of bad news for cruise lines — shipboard illnesses, accidents — may be good news for bargain hunters. “All the problems in the cruise industry have lessened the public’s trust in cruise vacations,” Frommer says. “I would guess that that will lead to some good last-minute discounts on cruises this summer.”
If you book within four weeks of the departure date, “when the cruise line is getting desperate and deeply discounted, you can often find cruises for $50 or $60 a day that way, and that includes meals,” she says.
Another tip: Sail on older ships, says Mark Murphy, founder of TravelPulse.com, a travel-news website. For example, Royal Caribbean’s Voyager class ships “are still in great condition, with great features,” he says, “but you’ll find a dramatic difference in price going out on one of the older ships.”
Andrea Coombes is a personal-finance writer and editor in San Francisco. She's on Twitter @andreacoombes. This article originally appeared on MarketWatch.com and is reprinted by permission from Marketwatch.com, ©2014 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.