How To Plan A Budget-Friendly Last-Minute Summer Vacation

 

It seems in a few short years that a lot about travel has changed, and that means even those of us who thought we were well-versed in how to travel had to relearn a lot.

On a trip I took recently, I booked a flight in the “basic” fare class, which is somehow a class that is below even economy. While that sounds delightful, it comes with a variety of limitations that made it not remotely the bargain I’d thought it would be. This class on this airline does not allow for carryon bags, but also charges for checked bags. People in this class are also not allowed to choose their seat in advance. Add up all the extra fees that come with this bargain rate, and it turns out that this is no longer such a good deal. (Suddenly I understood the joke that with “basic” you have the privilege of getting to hang onto a wing for your flight.) 

It was a learning experience, and an important reminder that what seems like the best deal isn’t always actually the best deal, especially when traveling. We have to do the math and weigh all the factors, and for that, we turned to the experts.

How to track flights to snag the cheapest deals

There are a number of flight trackers out there, and learning how to use them can find you a great deal – a lot better than the one I got! Here’s what I should have done: “Hopper and Google’s flight tracker are both good sources that let you predict and track flight prices for specific itineraries,” says  Kristin McGrath, editor of the The Real Deal blog by RetailMeNot.

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Keep in mind that airline prices are likely to increase this summer, due to increased demand and rising fuel costs. That’s when everyone wants to travel, including a lot of people that haven’t been traveling since early 2020. That demand spells increased costs for consumers if they aren’t careful.  “They (prices)  rose 10.7% in March, up from a 5.2% increase in February, according to the BLS Consumer Price Index,” says McGrath.  So this might not be the summer to play wait-and-see with flight prices. If you see a price that’s in-budget, now, consider snapping it up early. 

How to use points to offset the cost of travel

Airlines and hotels have their own loyalty points and miles programs, and some credit cards have flexible points systems that let you transfer points into miles at numerous airlines. This is another place where I went wrong – had I used the airline credit card that is associated with the airline I normally fly, I would have had things like bag check already included and even scored miles for my ride to the airport on my rideshare app.  “Some travel cards even have programs that function more like cash back, allowing you to redeem statement credits against travel expenses,” says McGrath.  These can all be great ways to reduce your travel costs.  “Just pay attention to any annual fees associated with travel rewards cards to make sure you’re getting more out of the program than you’re paying in,” says McGrath.

And make sure to compare hotel prices with prices of vacation rentals at Airbnb and VRBO. “If you can save hundreds of dollars on the cost of your booking, that might be better than nebulous points that you may or may not be able to redeem down the line,” says McGrath. The key is knowing your rewards programs inside out, so you don’t leave any points, rewards, free flights and free nights on the table during what’s sure to be an expensive summer for travel. 

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Don’t forget about cash-back shopping. “RetailMeNot has cash-back offers for major travel booking sites like Booking.com and Expedia,” says McGrath.  So, even if you don’t have enough rewards to offset a trip’s cost and the price won’t budge, you can get cash (redeemable via PayPal or Venmo) to bank for a future trip, or anything else you want to buy. “Cash-back is also a prime double-dipping opportunity because you can earn the cash and whatever points you’d have earned from the booking site’s rewards program,” says McGrath.

Being flexible with your plans can bring down the cost

High-demand flight times and high-demand destinations drive up costs. Being flexible with dates can help. For example: “Consider flying out mid-week rather than on a hotspot like a Friday or Saturday. Or, fly home on a Tuesday rather than on a Sunday with everyone else who’s trying to get back to work on Monday,” says McGrath.

Plus, consider looking into nearby airports, rather than your closest go-to. “If you’re flying with a family of four, then it might be better to buy four cheaper plane tickets to a less-expensive airport and rent a car to get to your intended destination,” says McGrath.  Avoiding holiday travel, such as during the Fourth of July, can also reduce your costs.

Where to look for last minute deals

Concentrate last-minute efforts on hotels and accommodations rather than flights. “Last-minute walk-up fares for flights tend to be more expensive, because airlines are likely close to fully booked this summer and know they have you in a tight spot at the last minute,” says McGrath, who says that last-minute can be good in a different way though: Hotels are a sweet spot for last-minute bookings. “You likely have more options in major cities and the ability to shop around, plus the option of booking a vacation-rental-by-owner. So hotel booking sites often have deals for last-minute unsold inventory that’s still open,” says McGrath. You’ll probably have less luck at popular vacation spots with few hotels that book months in advance. But try your last-minute luck in major cities that have a lot of available rooms. 

Cruise lines can also be quite generous with last-minute deals if they still have unsold cabins and might offer super low rates just to get you aboard (so you can spend money on the ship). “Check the cruise lines’ websites. We recently spotted some three-night cruises under $200 from Royal Caribbean for those willing to book less than a month out,” says McGrath.

Packing

Generally, my practice is to always pack just a carry-on, whenever possible. There’s a lot of reasons economically (but also sanity-wise!) – this is the best way to go. 

“Use packing techniques like the KonMari folding technique or vacuum sealed bags to pack everything you need in one bag,” says Jennifer Mitchell, a travel consultant at EF Ultimate Break and a budget expert. 

This will save money and time if your bags get lost. “If you have a carry on, wear your heaviest garments to avoid paying for overweight bags,” says Mitchell.  If you’re bringing a pillow, you can toss some items in the pillowcase to make sure you’re underweight.

Lodging and food

We all spend a lot of money on hotels and perhaps even more on dining out. We spend amounts we’d never imagine spending at home while eating out on vacation because vacation money seems to count in a different way. But it’s still money and there’s lots of ways to save in this area.

If you are open to it, try a hostel instead of a hotel.  Not only are hostels cheaper, but they typically have kitchens! “Instead of eating out every night, take the opportunity to buy from local markets and make your own dining experience at home!” says Mitchell. Instead of sit-down dinners, try new experiences like street carts to save money on-the-go. You may discover a lot of regional foods that you really enjoy by going off the beaten path in this way.

Transportation

Rideshares can get  incredibly expensive quickly, and taxis are often dicey.  Get to know your local public transportation to avoid taking Ubers to/from the airport.  “Most major cities have shuttle buses that will pick you up and save you money,” says Mitchell. And, where safe and possible, opt to walk around a city and see the sights rather than driving everywhere.

Once You’re There

If you’re a student or under 21, look for travel discounts (i.e. Paris offers huge discounts or free options for travelers under 25). In addition, most museums and public experiences offer discounts as well, and keep an eye out for local newspapers that may include coupons to local restaurants and attractions.

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