By Stacy Rapacon, Reporter, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
The travel industry continues to smart from the recession, so deals abound. You just need to know where to look. Search no further than our 21 tips to save on lodging, airfare, vacation packages and cruises:
Book a bargain stay
1) Check TripAdvisor.com for 25 million property reviews from real travelers and professional critics. For details on cozy and often less-costly venues, go to BedandBreakfast.com.
2) Visit Hotels.com every Thursday for its new last-minute deals. While you’re there, watch for other rate sales and package specials.
3) Book directly through the hotel's Web site. Many places offer special online-booking and prepaid deals. You can also opt in to hotels’ free rewards programs and receive e-mails about special promotions and discounts.
4) Book blindly for rock-bottom rates. The auction-style booking pushed by William Shatner’s “Priceline Negotiator” in the popular commercials really can cut up to 50% off regular hotel rates (and 40% off airfare and car-rental rates). And Hotwire.com’s “Hot Rates” can knock up to 60% off retail room prices. With either, you specify your length of stay, preferred neighborhood and a guaranteed minimum star class. But you won’t know the exact hotel or location until after you pay – an especially big risk when visiting unfamiliar areas, particularly overseas. (Blind booking is a safer bet for car rentals; a sedan is a sedan is a sedan. But it’s a big gamble for flights because you won’t know exact flight times or airlines.)
5) Call your hotel to confirm an online reservation, especially if you made one at the last minute, and ask about any additional fees you should watch out for. Most hotels are especially willing to waive fees for frequent visitors or rewards-program members. Also, request a copy of your bill the night before you check out so you have time to dispute any extra charges.
6) Consider specialty lodging, such as condos, villas and vacation home rentals, especially when traveling with a big group. These options often offer more space and amenities for prices similar to or less than hotel rates. HomeAway.com offers the biggest selection of rentals, with more than 176,000 listings worldwide.
Fly for less
7) Use Kayak.com to quickly scan hundreds of travel Web sites for the best airfares. And don't forget to check Southwest.com; Kayak does not include the discount airline’s fares.
8) Sign up with airlines’ free loyalty programs to get the best bargains delivered straight to your in-box. Or visit Airfarewatchdog.com, where the site’s employees join airlines’ rewards programs to snag those promotional codes and special offers to share with you.
9) Plan your purchase at Bing.com/travel, formerly Farecast.com. The site’s “price predictor” forecasts whether fares on major domestic routes will go up or down. Enter your itinerary and it will return a list of airfares with a recommendation to either buy now or wait for a fare drop.
10) Try flying at less-traveled times; flights on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturday afternoons typically see the least demand and therefore offer the best rates.
11) Choose your destination based on the cheapest flight. For example, if you’re interested in a Caribbean vacation but don’t have a specific location in mind, you can use Kayak’s Buzz tool to search for flights to anywhere in the Caribbean and then pick the place with the lowest fare.
12) Dodge flying fees. To avoid charges levied for buying tickets in person or by phone, book directly with the airline's Web site or with one of the big three online travel agencies – Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz- which recently dropped their flight-booking fees. . And pack lightly to dodge baggage costs. At FlyingFees.com, you can compare the baggage fees carried by 30 major airlines, and other types of fees charged by 20 major airlines.
Save a bundle on vacation packages
13) Online travel agencies Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz are well known for their bundled bargains. But don’t forget to check packages offered by airlines such as United Vacations and smaller operators such as Apple Vacations for some of the sweetest deals.
14) Check the cost of add-ons, such as rental cars, show tickets, tours and museum passes, when booking packages with online travel agencies. Sometimes the agencies offer those extras at a discount.
15) Get one price on your trips with all-inclusive deals from resorts such as Club Med and Sandals.
16) Add travel insurance to your bundle. With Expedia's Package Protection Plan, for example, you're ensured a refund if you need to cancel or change plans. You'll also be reimbursed for trip delays, baggage losses and medical expenses. The package costs $40 to $89, depending on your destination. If you're not offered this protection when you book, or if you need more insurance than what you are offered, go to TravelGuard.com.
Cruise to savings
17) The best deals are close to the departure date -- just don't expect the really cheap tickets to get you a stateroom with a view.
18) Understand the different elements of a cruise, including theme, cabin types and ports of call. CruiseMates.com provides useful reviews and advice columns to get you started. But if you're a first-timer feeling overwhelmed, consider using a travel agent.
19) Visit CruiseCompete.com, where you submit your cruise preferences and more than 300 travel agents compete for your business.
20) Book your flight separately. Using Kayak or Bing.com/travel, you can often find fares that are lower than what a cruise line will package in for you. Make sure you allow enough time to reach the departure port; the ship won’t wait for you if your flight is delayed.
21) Sail into big savings with a repositioning cruise. Ships need to take these one-way voyages in order to relocate for the season. For example, ships that cruise near Alaska in the summer head south once fall arrives, and cruise lines invite passengers aboard for the ride at deeply discounted rates.