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Budget Travel Tips: How to Book the Cheapest Airfare, Hotels, and Vacations

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By , dealnews contributor

If you love to travel then you know that these days most journeys begins with a single click of the mouse. The explosion of travel websites — like Orbitz, Expedia, Priceline, and Travelocity — over the past decade have made trip-planning decidedly more accessible for the masses. Gone are the days of travel agents who planned and booked itineraries across the globe.

It can also be difficult for some folks to feel confident about securing the best price for their ideal trip without said travel agent, and this is compounded by the notion that now, without a middleman, more people are accessing and competing to book the same great travel deals online. But there are tried and true ways to ensure you're getting the lowest prices available. The first way to know you're getting a bargain is, of course, to stay abreast of the best travel deals of the week here at dealnews. Beyond that though, there are several travel tips that any jet-setter should be aware of. We turned to expert travel columnist Donald D. Groff for some of the most effective booking strategies.

Act on Airfare Alerts in Minutes, Not Hours

Before you go on vacation, you have to get there. And with more Americans flying than before, Groff advises passengers to learn what it means when airlines slash their fares. "Some of these [fare] deals are not for every seat of the plane. If we're talking about a plane with 150 seats, and 10% are for this new deal, that's only 15 seats," he says. "And if the fare alert goes out to 150,000 people, imagine how quick those seats will go." That said, it's best to act quickly. If you're going to take a few hours to check your travel dates and the like, chances are you'll miss out on these kinds of last minute flight deals. "If you're well informed on the base fare and your dates in advance, you don't have to scratch your head and ask, 'Is this a good fare or not?'"

Book Your Flight Six Weeks in Advance

A little while back, we wrote about how the Airlines Reporting Corp. discovered that the sweet spot for getting the best price on a flight is approximately six weeks before the date of travel. Flights purchased within this time frame are "nearly 6% below the overall average fare." So why not set a calendar alert for six weeks before you take those vacation days?

Get Personalized Alerts for Airfare

In addition to setting up an email alert for airfare sales on dealnews, there are budget airfare resources that are helpful for alerting you to low fares for your specific locations. (Although we also occasionally see location-specific promotions as well, like this United Airlines sale on roundtrip flights to New York starting at $129.60, a low by $32.) Airfare Watchdog offers a list of the lowest daily airfares from "home" airports, and also offers fare alerts to desired destinations. SmartTravel and Travelocity's FareWatcher Plus also send out personalized airfare deal alerts to their subscribers. The more airfare alerts, the better. This information will equip budget travelers with the ability to spot good deals, Groff says.

Book Cruises a Year in Advance

Experienced cruise ship travelers know that not all cabins are created equal. Sometimes when grabbing a last-minute cruise deal, it's easy to rationalize an inside room with a view of a wall rather than an ocean. Of course, "if you have the attitude that you're only going to sleep in the cabin and it doesn't matter," a windowless room might work for you, Groff says. "But one advantage to booking that far ahead — aside from taking advantage of early offers — is choosing what kind of accommodations you're going to get." If you want a balcony, for example, you'll find a better selection of low-cost options a year in advance.

And even if you don't mind an interior room, booking well in advance still yields lower rates across the board; for example, this 5-night Royal Caribbean cruise, as well as this 7-night option, departs in May 2013. We've also noticed that, in particular, Carnival Cruise Lines has been offering consistently aggressive deals since January. Look to this carrier for great rates to the Caribbean especially, and also look for deals that include onboard credits or room upgrades.

Don't Overlook Hotel Websites for Great Deals

Hotels are competing aggressively with travel booking sites now more than ever, Groff says. Hotels have just now begun to question why they would be giving Travelocity or Orbitz a cut when they too can offer their vacancies online and eliminate the middleman. "It's to the point where many online hotel booking engines will guarantee the lowest rate, and match any low rate you can find." Hotel loyalty programs are also a great source for special deals and perks.

Know the Best Days to Book a Hotel Room

Sometimes it can be difficult to find that awesome advertised starting price for a hotel sale, and some booking engines don't easily scan for the days with the lowest rates. It's therefore important to know that the cheapest nightly hotel rates tend to fall Sunday through Wednesday, and sometimes on Thursday. Moreover, we've found that stays on days immediately after a chunk of blackout dates tend to boast some many of the lowest advertised rates. Said blackout dates may correlate with a busy, high-volume period for the hotel (an event in town, for example), and mass exodus afterward could leave the hotel looking to fill rooms.

Subscribe to as Many Newsletters and Rewards Programs as Possible

It pays to be in the know, and that's no exception when booking budget travel. With cruise ships, for example, Groff recommends CyberCrusies for up-to-date cruise news and subscriber-only specials. Cruise lines, airlines and their partners, and hotel alliances also offer email alerts to keep travelers informed of double mile deals and the like.

Know When New Promo Rates Pop Up

In general, travel deals are refreshed every Tuesday around midnight. Shortly thereafter, email blasts go out with fare specials, Groff says — so know that this email is coming and be prepared to book pronto! We've noticed this through our deals as well; an overwhelming number of travel deals feature a Tuesday expiration date, while some also end on a Monday.

Use AutoSlash to Find Cheap Rental Car Rates

The premise of AutoSlash is similar to that of a metasearch. The site aggregates car rental prices from a variety of companies to find the lowest priced rental that matches a driver's criteria. But what makes it remarkable is that it continues to monitor car rental rates in the selected city — and it doesn't just alert drivers to the better rate, it switches their reservation to the company with the lowest price available! AutoSlash works the way it does because travelers are never locked into a payment the way they would be with an airline ticket.

"Let the Flyer Beware"

As a super-experienced traveler, Groff cautions that the zeal to find a terrific bargain can result in some disappointment. "There is no magic bullet that's going to work flawlessly at all times," he says. "The best route to good deals is to be an informed traveler — monitor price patterns, filter them with personal needs and desires, and don't be deceived by exclamations of 'best deals' and 'fare wars.' Websites are as adept at carnival-barking as print advertising ever was, and comparison shopping is your only real protection against overpaying."

We too want to see all of our readers confidently book a bargain vacation and be satisfied with their itinerary. The first step to traveling smart is deal with reputable merchants and retailers. Then you can worry about more significant matters, like exactly how many Hawaiian shirts to pack.

Front page photo credit: Jamaicans
Photo credits top to bottom: NS Bank Blog, Ship Cruise,
Scoop It, and AutoSlash


Related dealnews Features:
Lou Carlozo is a dealnews contributing writer. He covers personal finance for Reuters Wealth, and was most recently the managing editor of WalletPop.com, and before that a veteran columnist at theChicago Tribune.

Follow @dealnews on Twitter for the latest roundups, price trend info, and stories. You can also sign up for an email alert for all dealnews features.

Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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