April 30, 2014 at 1:58 PM ET
Booking travel: You're doing it wrong.
It took time after the recession, but Americans are traveling more these days. Leisure travel is expected to rise 1.9 percent this year, to more than 1.63 billion trips, according to the U.S. Travel Association. But travel costs are rising, too, with the average airfare creeping closer to the $400 mark and PKF Hospitality Research predicting hotels' profits will surpass their prerecession peak this year.
"You really have to fight for the cheap fares," said Tom Parsons, chief executive of BestFares.com. It's not just about when you fly or how early you book, although those tried-and-true strategies can make a serious dent in the cost of your summer vacation. (For perspective, high demand this year could mean that vacationers booking their summer trip after early May will pay premiums of $200 or more, depending on the destination, he said.)
To get the best deal on travel, it's time to add a few new booking tricks to your hunt:
1) Search solo
A quirk of travel-booking systems is that they will show the lowest fare available to seat your entire party, said Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com. "Everyone's fare is the same price," he said. So if there are two of the very cheapest seats left, one that's a little more expensive and four that are pricier still, it's only that last option that will show up in your family of four's search. Start your search for a party of one, and then scale it up until prices change. So long as you don't mind booking the seats in several transactions, you could save by snaring cheaper fares for a few people in your party. (Doing so doesn't make it any harder to find seats together, Seaney said.)
Sample savings: An Expedia search for round-trip fares between New York and Orlando, Fla., in mid-May for four people found seats for $370 per person. Searching for fewer people pulled up two seats at $348, and another two at $363 — all on the same flights. Savings: $58.
2) Stack rewards
There are often-missed opportunities here to double, triple or even quadruple dip. For starters, there are the free reward programs offered by the hotel, car rental company or airline. Then there are rewards from the travel booking site, which are increasingly robust. Hotels.com offers a free night for every 10 booked; Expedia awards two points per dollar spent. Some online malls operated by the airlines and other deal sites like Ebates.com, offer extra cash back when you link through them to book. At FatWallet.com, you'll get up to 5 percent cash for bookings on Priceline and 6.5 percent on Travelocity, among other deals. And finally, there are extra points, miles or cash back to be had booking with a rewards credit card.
Sample savings: Orbitz offers 3 percent rewards on hotels for members of its Orbitz Rewards program. Use its brand-new Orbitz credit card, and that jumps to 8 percent. The site also offers a 2 percent bonus for hotel bookings made on a mobile device, for a maximum 10 percent rewards, which can be used to book future travel. Link through from FatWallet, and score 1- to 3- percent cash back, separately. Plus you'll get whatever your favorite hotel program awards.
3) Hunt for coupons
Before you book, check for airline, hotel and booking site coupon codes. JetBlue offers weekly "cheeps" on Twitter under the handle @JetBlueCheeps, and many other airlines offer regular deals through their email newsletters and websites, said Anne Banas, executive editor for SmarterTravel.com. "That can help you shave off some dollars," she said. Other codes offer to double or triple reward bonuses that would normally be earned on the booking, a boon for travelers angling for a free flight or hotel stay.
Sample savings: Spirit recently offered the code "10PCT" to save 10 percent on nonstop fares booked during May 5-20, or May 28-June 8.
4) Time your hunt
Data from FareCompare.com has found that the pool of cheap seats in the system is highest on Tuesday afternoons. "Around two-thirds of sales occur Monday night, and airlines scramble to match them Tuesday," Seaney said. It's no guarantee of a cheap fare, but it can't hurt to try.
Sample savings: Earlier in April, airlines dropped last-minute round-trip weekend fares between Richmond, Va., and New York City to as low as $161—about half the going rate for those booking ahead.
5) Be truly flexible
The newest crop of booking engines aims to help travelers who don't have a destination in mind, Banas said. On sites such as Adioso and Google Flights, their search results show the best current fares out of your home airport over a given time frame.
Sample savings: A San Francisco resident in search of a June beach vacation could see at a glance that the $398 flight deal to Puerto Rico is more than $100 cheaper than those to the Bahamas, and half the price of fares to Jamaica.
6) Capitalize on price drops
Not certain you're getting the best deal? Some sites are set up to help you get a refund. Booking site Tingo.com scans prices and automatically rebooks hotel stays if it spots a better price, sending you a credit for the price difference. There's also Yapta, which sends an alert after a booked airfare's price drops, offering tips and airline policies to help secure a credit for the difference. (A word of caution: Airline change fees of up to $200 and restrictive policies often make reimbursement tough.)
Sample savings: Between booking and check-in for a weeklong stay on Hawaii's Big Island last fall, Tingo.com sent three separate price drop notifications resulting in a $261 credit toward the previously $1,762 stay.
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