With airfares to Europe and Asia sky-high and high-seas breakdowns roiling the cruise industry, leisure travelers have plenty of reasons to put vacation plans on hold. But no need to restrain your wanderlust. We asked industry insiders and travel Web site editors to weigh in with their top tips and smartest strategies for getting good deals -- without the nightmare scenarios -- on airfares, cruises, hotels and vacation packages. Whether you're on the prowl for a luxury resort that courts you with freebies or just want to qualify for priority boarding, you can use this advice to claim all the perks and conveniences typically reserved for the savviest travelers. Bonus: We also asked the experts for their favorite value destinations.
Air travelers have hit some turbulence this year. Air traffic controller furloughs led to thousands of flight delays in April. The attacks at the Boston Marathon likely contributed to the postponement of new rules that would have allowed previously banned items, such as hockey sticks and small knives, onboard planes. Skyrocketing airfares to Europe, due to high fuel prices and high demand, have made travel to the Continent even pricier. Plus, fees continue to rise: United Airlines increased its domestic change fee to $200, and American, Delta and US Airways followed suit. But you can still find good deals and avoid the crowds, especially if your plans are flexible.
How to Save
1) Fly when no one else wants to. Fares rise and fall with air traffic -- so says the law of supply and demand. In general, plan to fly on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday afternoon to bag a cheaper plane ticket. If you're taking a weeklong domestic trip, depart on a Saturday and return on a Monday and you'll score a 16% discount on your airfare, according to Kayak.com, the travel Web site. For weeklong international trips, departing on Tuesday and returning on Wednesday of the following week saves 21%, on average.
Early mornings and late nights are also less popular and more affordable times to fly, as are Thanksgiving and the eves and days of Christmas and New Year's. If you want to find the best month to take your trip, plug your home airport and getaway location into Hotwire.com's TripStarter tool to see the cheapest times to fly. Besides saving money, avoiding peak travel days will often mean you'll travel on less-crowded flights and go through shorter airport security lines.
2) Be flexible about where you go. You can use Kayak's Explore tool to pinpoint on a world map all the destinations you can visit within your airfare budget. (See Also: 12 Vacation Destinations on Sale.)
3) Use Kayak.com -- our favorite among fare aggregators -- to quickly scan hundreds of travel Web sites for the cheapest airfares. Check fares on Southwest.com separately -- Kayak doesn't include fares for the budget airline.
4) Sign up for airlines' free e-mail alerts to get sale notifications and coupon codes delivered straight to your in-box. Or follow airlines and alert sites, such as Airfarewatchdog, on Twitter. Not only do you get first dibs on flash sales, but you also develop a point of reference to recognize good deals.
5) Make sure you're buying at the right time with Bing Travel's "price predictor." Just enter your itinerary, and the site will return a list of fares with a recommendation to either buy now -- because it expects the fare to rise -- or wait for a soon-to-come fare drop. And note that domestic airfares are cheapest seven weeks before departure, according to CheapAir, an airfare booking site.
6) If you're booking a last-minute flight, consider buying a vacation package. Online travel agencies lock in lower fares early and combine them with cheap hotel stays. At the eleventh hour, when fares may spike elsewhere, these bundles may cost less than purchasing the flight alone.
7) Get a deal on extras. Several airlines have introduced new ways of bundling fees. For example, Delta's $21 "Ascend" package includes in-flight Wi-Fi and priority boarding. American Airlines' $68 "Choice Essential" package includes a checked bag, a reservation change and Group 1 boarding. Some bundles are more valuable than others. American's package is a deal if you suspect that your itinerary might change. Delta's is more about saving a few bucks.
8) Keep an eye on fares, even after you book. You have the right to change or cancel your flight plans for free within 24 hours of booking, thanks to rules introduced by the Department of Transportation in 2012. So if you find a better fare within that window, you can snatch the savings with no penalty. After 24 hours, if you find your booked fare has dropped, some airlines may be willing to refund you the difference. Use Yapta.com to track any price changes on nine major airlines and score any cash back you deserve.
9) Avoid the extra baggage fees that most airlines charge. Southwest continues to allow two free checked bags; JetBlue permits one. See SmarterTravel for a comprehensive list of fees from 16 major airlines. And weigh the costs of carrying luggage versus shipping it -- see KIP TIP: Save Money By Shipping Your Luggage.
With scores of mobile apps pointing you to the nearest vacancy, last-minute bookings can yield fabulous results. Plus, far-flung destinations (think Europe or Asia) are offering deals on lodging that help balance out high airfares. "We have five-star European hotels working with us now that never would have worked with us a few years ago," says Clem Bason, president of Hotwire.com.
How to Save
10) Go off-season -- an especially savvy strategy if you select a destination that's designed for large peak-season crowds. Desperate to fill rooms, hotels will slash rates or throw in perks, such as free Wi-Fi or spa credits. For example, consider business or convention hotels after the suits have departed for the weekend and beach resorts in the spring (after spring break) or fall. (See Also: 12 Vacation Destinations on Sale.)
11) Book directly through a hotel's Web site. Many places offer lower rates for online booking. You can also sign up to get hotels' e-mails about special promotions and discounts. Just remember the lowest rates are usually prepaid and non-refundable. If you think your plans might change, you'll have to pay the higher, more flexible rates.
12) Double down on tip number five and be flexible to save on a high-class stay. Private-sale sites, such as JetSetter.com, offer deep discounts on luxury hotels for a limited time. But the destinations are random and most sites only offer a few deals at a time.
13) Book blind for rock-bottom rates. The "Priceline Negotiator" and Hotwire.com's "Hot Rates" can cut up to 50% off regular hotel rates. With either site, 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 works fine for car rentals, too; a sedan is a sedan is a sedan. But it's a bigger gamble for flights because you won't know exact departure times or airlines.)
14) Keep an eye on lodging rates, even after you book. If you see a lower rate on the same type of room at your hotel, call the front desk and see if they'll match it. Tingo.com specializes in this kind of cash-back courtesy -- if you book a "Money Back" room through the site, it will track the hotel's rates and automatically refund you if the price drops.
And take advantage of the best-rate guarantees from hotel chains such as Hyatt and Starwood. If you find a better rate on a third-party site for the same hotel and room type, they'll beat the lower rate by 10% to 20%. Orbitz will award you "Orbucks" if another customer books a room or flight at a cheaper rate. Orbitz's tracking system takes note and credits you 110% of the difference, which can translate to savings of up to $500 per hotel booking.
15) Fight the fees. Call your hotel to confirm an online reservation -- especially if you booked at the last minute -- and check to see whether you're being charged additional fees. Hotels may be willing to waive fees, especially for frequent visitors or rewards-program members. Also, request a copy of your bill the night before you check out so that you have time to dispute any extra charges.
16) Switch hotels mid stay. Say you're booking a hotel for a five-night stay starting on Saturday night. If Saturday and Sunday are more expensive than Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, you'll typically pay for all five nights at the highest price. Consider switching hotels midway through your trip if you can find a comparable hotel for a cheaper weekday rate.
17) Visit the concierge. You'll get the inside scoop on discount theater tickets, two-for-one restaurant deals and other entertainment. Or get help before you check in. Travelocity offers free concierge service if you book vacation packages through its site. Expedia offers "Local Experts" to give advice on popular vacation destinations. And Room 77, a hotel aggregator start-up, offers concierge service to help you locate the right room at three- to five-star hotels.
Fall is off-season in many destinations, so travel providers are eager to fill plane seats, hotel beds and rental cars. "Anytime after Labor Day is a great time to book a travel package," says Clem Bason, of Hotwire.com.
How to Save
18) 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 Southwest Vacations. And some smaller travel operators can pack in big savings. For example, Apple Vacations often offers some of the sweetest deals, and Gate 1 Travel sends a regular e-mail newsletter with its latest vacation packages.
19) Use your frequent-flier miles. You can book bundles directly through air carriers, such as American Airlines and Delta, and use frequent-flier miles to pay. Even AAA offers its own member-exclusive travel packages. Or check out packages on daily deal sites at Groupon and LivingSocial. Their offerings range from weekend trips to guided tours.
20) Seek all-inclusive deals to pay just once for your whole vacation -- including lodging, food, drinks and activities -- and make it easier to stay within your budget, especially if you're traveling with children. As the peak summer season cools off, beach resorts should get more generous with their perks.
21) Price it a la carte. To see if a package makes sense, research prices for all of the elements before you commit. For example, a cruise package typically charges per person for hotel rooms at the port of departure. See whether you would save by reserving a double-occupancy room outside of the package. If you can, consider dumping the package or opting out of the hotel portion.
Not long after the Costa Concordia fiasco, a Carnival cruise ship became disabled in the Gulf of Mexico and had to be towed to shore -- and that was hardly the end of the Carnival circus. But when it comes to cruise safety, don't get too worked up. Cruise disasters grab headlines but are relatively rare. If you're still nervous, avoid the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and consider a close-to-shore river or Alaskan cruise instead.
How to Save
22) Defy hurricane season. June 1 to November 30 is hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean, and that's when cruise lines offer the most enticing deals. Cruises are rarely canceled, because ships can circumvent storms with creative rerouting or a few days' delay. Check out Cruise Critic's "Hurricane Zone," which provides storm updates and links to hurricane-season deals.
But delays that force you to shell out for extra hotel nights or itinerary changes that make your cruise unrecognizable from the one you booked aren't reimbursed by the cruise company, so cover your bases by booking travel insurance through a third-party provider, such as Travel Guard. (If your cruise is canceled, you'll receive a refund or credit toward a future cruise.)
23) Use a travel agent. Cruises can prove more complicated than your standard trip by air or land, especially if you're a first-time cruiser, and booking snafus can cost you. And a good cruise agent can land you solid deals, cabin upgrades and other extras. At CruiseCompete.com, submit your cruise preferences, and the site will relay your request to more than 300 travel agents, who will then make you their best offers.
But beware of upselling: Agents typically receive a commission from the cruise line, so it's in their best interest if you book a cruise bundle that includes airfare and hotel. Think twice -- and research flights and hotels on your own -- before purchasing one. Using Kayak or Bing Travel, you can often find fares for less than the flight cost included in a cruise line's package. Just be sure to schedule enough time between landing and setting sail; the boat won't wait if your flight is delayed.
24) For all-inclusive, go luxury. Cruise lines are starting to nickel-and-dime passengers. Expect to pay an extra $25 to $35 for the fanciest onboard restaurants and to pony up for other extras. Luxury liners tend to include amenities, such as shore excursions and gratuities, in their prices. A luxury line might even cover airfare -- often a good deal if you're considering a Mediterranean cruise. Plus, you'll typically have the run of a smaller ship, with a roomier cabin and more one-on-one service.
25) You can score some of the best cruise deals if you book at the last minute -- just don't expect the really cheap tickets to get you a stateroom with a view. You might also miss out on completely booked shore excursions. But cruise ships set sail as scheduled whether or not every cabin is occupied, so cruise lines often offer great last-minute deals to bring aboard as many paying guests as possible. (Airlines, by contrast, have cut many flights from their schedules, making it less likely to find empty seats at the 11th hour.)
26) 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. Look to CruiseCompete.com for current deals on repositioning cruises.