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.