The good news is that you can still get great deals for now through January 6. The bad news is that you won’t have as many options as you normally would. You’ll find it easier if you’re flexible — both on where you go and when you go. Erik Torkells, Editor of Budget Travel magazine shares hot winter deals and practical advice:
Why you should consider a package
Packages — where you pay one price for several parts (usually at least air and hotel) — can be major bargains. Here’s why: To fill rooms and seats, hotels and airlines will resort to rock-bottom prices. For obvious reasons, they don’t like to publicize these rates, so they sell a certain number of rooms or seats to companies that bundle them in packages. That way, no one knows exactly what the airfare or hotel alone costs.
And this time of year, the hard part is finding an airfare — and packagers may have airfares that no one else does. Moreover, during busy times like the holidays, you can get stuck wondering if you should first buy your airfare or reserve your hotel. With a package, it happens simultaneously. (And it’s easy. Let’s face it: If you were the kind of person who really liked planning travel, you probably would’ve planned a holiday trip a long time ago.)
A few things to bear in mind before you buy a package:
1. The only way to know if it’s a deal is to see what it costs to book separately.
2. Don’t trust the packager’s hotel description or star rating; research the hotel on your own. If you don’t like the hotel being offered, you can usually upgrade.
3. Ask about the flight’s times, connections, airline, and change and cancellation policies.
4. Extra nights are often available at a ridiculously low rate. Sites where you can find good package deals include our own BudgetTravel.com, as well as LastMinute.com, LastMinuteTravel.com, and Travelzoo (the listings are advertisements, but often good deals nonetheless. The meta search engines, Kayak.com and SideStep.com, and also search for packages.
If all you want to do is visit family, and all you need is airfare, your best bets are Kayak.com and SideStep.com.
General advice for buying a last-minute package
Some tips that may be useful no matter where you want to go:
• If you’re willing to go on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, you’ll probably find space, but nothing at great bargains.
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• Getting flights back on the weekend of Jan 5-6 is tough—it’s the busiest weekend in the season. If you can come back after Jan. 5–6, it opens a lot more possibilities.
• Broaden your horizons. Destinations like Argentina are sold out completely, but Chile is not as popular, so the chances are better to get space down to Santiago than to Buenos Aires.
• Look for travel companies that offer daily departures on their packages (versus ones that only have weekly flights). This gives you more flexibility to find a good airfare.
• Don’t be daunted just because the place you want to visit requires a visa (Rio in Brazil, for example). Tour operators have longstanding relationships with visa processing companies that allow them to expedite a last-minute visa request (although it might involve a “rush” surcharge).
Tactics for dealing with a weak dollar
The U.S. dollar is in the dumps. As I write this, €1 is worth $1.47, and £1 is worth $2.05. Even the Canadian dollar is worth more than the U.S. dollar. Many experts say the situation could get worse.
While I don’t have any easy answers — sorry — I do have a few strategies to get more for your money. First, consider countries where the dollar still goes relatively far. I went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, last year and was amazed how far the dollar goes. As a New York Times writer pointed out, when you order wine you can go straight to the bottom of the wine list. (In fact, three Budget Travel editors are headed to Argentina this winter.)
Mexico also remains a terrific value. It helps if you travel beyond the tourist grid—the farther you get away from places like Cancún and Cabo San Lucas, the better values you’ll find. Getting there costs more in transportation, but you’ll spend far less once you’ve arrived. This strategy is true for anywhere, and especially within Europe, where the countryside is far more affordable than the cities.
Ultimately, to avoid traveler’s remorse—when your credit card bill makes you wish you’d stayed home—you’ll need to pay close attention to where and how you spend every dime, even if that’s exactly what most of us don’t want to do when we’re on vacation.
Renting a house or apartment
It used to be a pain to find a house, condo, or apartment to rent, but the Internet has made the process so much easier. Renting is one of the very best values out there right now, especially for families and other groups. (Very few parents want to pay for a hotel breakfast for the entire family for one day, let alone several days!) HomeAway.com is an easy one-stop website for home and apartment rentals. Looking for a place to rent is a lot like searching for a hotel on Expedia. Just type in where you want to go and the dates you want to travel, and you’ll be presented with a bunch of options, with many photos. Past renters are also allowed to write reviews of the experience, so you can get a sense of whether it might be right for you.
There are also independent renters out there — to find them, try Googling your destination and “house rental” and seeing what comes up. I was looking for a house to rent outside Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and searched for the town of Yelapa. Palapainyelapa.com had great rentals for around $150 a night.
If you’re intrigued by house-swapping — and the idea of paying nothing for lodging certainly has an appeal—check out these three house-swapping websites: HomeExchange.com, HomeLink.org, Intervac.com.
General advice for looking for travel bargains
1. Use the meta search engines. There’s no one simple way to track the best fare or rate down. Start with meta-search engines like Kayak.com and SideStep.com, which scour multiple websites for flights, hotels, cruises, and car rentals. Orbitz, Travelocity, and Expedia are good for getting a feel for what’s out there—though they often don’t search all airlines, and they tack on service fees.
2. Whenever possible, book directly. If you see a low rate elsewhere, ask the hotel to match it. Hotels will almost always undercut any middleman — which isn’t all that difficult, when you consider that booking engines charge fees. (Besides, third-party bookers often get second-class treatment. Wrong as it is, hotels are nicer to guests who seek them out than to those who come via a third-party booking engine.)
3. Negotiate! Few price quotes are non-negotiable anymore — that goes for a rug in India or a hotel room anywhere. Don’t accept the first rate you see; ask if there are unadvertised specials, or if the hotel can do better. Play up whatever you bring to the table — you’re with a group, for example, or you visit often. Instead of a lower rate, you may end up with free parking or an upgrade. Just make sure the person you’re wooing is in a position to deliver.
Even after you’ve made a reservation, keep hunting. Prices for car rentals and hotels fluctuate, so never give up sniffing out a better deal. When you locate one, snap it up — and cancel the old reservation. Just make sure the cancellation policy won’t bite you in the rear.
We’ve also rounded up great deals from the packagers whose deals we regularly feature. All prices are per person double occupancy:
Hawaii (The Big Island) from $1,189
Roundtrip United Airlines flights from San Francisco, six-day Hertz car rental, and five nights in a garden view room at the Naniloa Volcanoes Resort. Departure dates: December 18, 19, 20. Other gateways: Chicago (from $1,419), New York (from $1,599). Contact: Apple Vacations, applevacations.com.
Las Vegas from $229
Roundtrip JetBlue flights from Long Beach, Calif.; three nights at the Monte Carlo Resort & Casino, two buffet meals, two spa admissions, two free well drinks or beers at pub, $10 free play at casino. Other gateways: Sacramento, Dec. 16–18, from $326; D.C. Dulles, Dec. 16–18, from $402; New York, Dec. 16–18, from $520. Departure dates: Until Dec. 21. Note: Must book by Dec. 15. Contact: JetBlue Airways, 800/538-2583, jetblue.com.
Quebec City from $759
Roundtrip Air Canada or United Airlines flights from Atlanta, Boston, or New York and three nights at the downtown Delta Québec hotel. When: Until Apr. 30. Add from $100 on weekends during Winter Carnival (Feb. 1-2, 8-9, 15-16). Other gateways: Miami (from $768), Chicago (from $799), L.A. (from $857). SS: From $209. Contact: Maxxim Vacations, 800/567-6666, maxximvacations.com.
Cancún from $819
Roundtrip Delta flights from Atlanta and three, four, or seven nights at one of four all-inclusive hotels (Avalon Reef Club Isla Mujeres, Royal Solaris, Le Blanc Spa Resort, Temptation Resort & Spa). Departure dates: Dec. 24 (four nights or seven nights), Dec. 28 (three nights). Other gateways: add $80 for 11 southern gateways including Nashville, Jacksonville, and Montgomery; add $100 for 20 eastern gateways including D.C., Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Contact: Vacation Express, vacationexpress.com
Riviera Maya from $1,450
Roundtrip airfare from Dallas or Detroit and seven nights in a Jacuzzi junior suite at adult-only all-inclusive El Dorado Royale, a Spa Resort. Departure dates by gateway: Dallas (Jan. 6); Detroit (Jan. 5, 6). Contact: funjet.com
Puerto Vallarta from $780
Roundtrip airfare from one of six gateways (below) and seven nights at the all-inclusive Hola Puerto Vallarta Club & Spa. Ocean view room and children under six stay free. Departure dates by gateways: Denver (Jan. 2, 3, 4); Detroit (Jan. 4); Kansas City (Jan. 6); Milwaukee (Jan. 5); Chicago O’Hare (Jan. 6); San Francisco (Jan. 3, 4, 5); St. Louis (Jan. 2). Note: Sale extends through January at the same price; February dates are available at $899.99 per person. Contact: funjet.com
Grand Bahama Island Promotion
Spirit Vacations (which is affiliated with Spirit Airlines) is running a promotion to Grand Bahama Island – buy one roundtrip ticket and your companion flies free. On top of that, if you use MasterCard to buy an air/hotel package at least two nights at one of six resorts on Grand Bahama Island you save $100 off your room charges; stay at least three nights and knock off $200. For example: roundtrip airfare on Spirit Airlines from Fort Lauderdale with transfers and five nights at the Pelican Bay Resort is $379. Departures: Dec. 15, 18, 19; Jan. 3, 4. Companion Flies Free program is only out Fort Lauderdale. Contact: Spirit Vacations, 800/617-3325, spiritvacations.com. Note: FPOMC200 must be entered.
Jamaica from $900
Roundtrip airfare from D.C., Detroit, and St. Louis; and seven nights at the all-inclusive Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort in Montego Bay. Up to three children under the age of 12 stay free with an adult. Departure dates by gateway: D.C. Dulles (Jan. 5), Detroit (Jan. 4), St. Louis (Jan. 4). Contact: funjet.com
Cable Beach Resorts in Nassau, Bahamas has a promotion: Guests who book at least a four-night stay get a $300 air credit valid for any airline used to fly to the Bahamas; a three-night stay gets a $200 air credit, and a two-night stay gets a $100 air credit. Departures: Until Dec. 28. Note: Book by Dec. 21. Contact: Cable Beach Resorts, 800/222-7466, cablebeachresorts.com.
Nicaragua from $900
Roundtrip airfare from Miami on American Airlines into Managua (other gateways & carriers available), seven all-inclusive nights at Barcelo Playa Montelimar in Playa Montelimar, airport transfers in Nicaragua. Contact: Capricorn Leisure Corp., 800/426-6544, capricorn.net.
Ireland from $599
Roundtrip airfare to Shannon from New York starting Jan. 1; six nights’ hotel accommodations (two nights in Clare, two nights in Cork, two nights in Dublin); car rental for the week with unlimited mileage. Contact: Look for “Best of Ireland” at dooleyvacations.com
London from $1,069
Air from New York to London, six nights’ hotel accommodations at the Caesar Hotel (in Queen’s Gardens, near Hyde Park), and breakfast daily. Departure dates: Daily Dec. 15–Jan. 6. Other gateways: Boston, Philadelphia ($1,089); Washington D.C. ($1,119); Atlanta ($1,179); Dallas ($1,249); Chicago ($1,189). SS From $400. Contact: EuropeASAP, 415/750-5449, europeasap.com.
Beijing from $1,168
Airfare from New York on Dec. 26, seven days’ hotel in Beijing, and more. Other gateways: 21 East Coast cities and Vancouver ($1,228). Contact: Pacific Delight Tours, Pacific Delight Tours, 800/221-7179, pacificdelighttours.com. Note: Must book by Dec. 20.
China tour from $1,899
All airfare (including roundtrip from Los Angeles to Beijing), local transportation, 10 nights’ accommodations in five-star hotels, meals, and tours. The tour goes to Beijing, Hangzhou, Xi’an, Suzhou, and Shanghai. Departure date: Jan. 1. Other gateway: New York (direct flights from $1,999). Contact: Champion Holidays, 800/868-7658, china-discovery.com. Note: Mention the Today show and get an extra $100 off per person.
Tahiti and Moorea $1,999
Round-trip coach airfare from Los Angeles on Air Tahiti Nui, one night in a mountain-view room at Sofitel Tahiti with breakfast, and five nights in a garden-view bungalow at Moorea Pearl Resort & Spa, inter-island transport by ferry, all transfers, and breakfast and dinner daily. Departures: daily. Valid for stays until Mar. 31, 2008. Contact: Sunspots International, 800/334-5623, sunspotsintl.com.
For more great travel tips and deals, visit Budget Travel magazine online.
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