If you’ve got your heart set on a summer vacation, you’re not alone. Experts predict that this travel season will be the busiest since 2019, with more than 60 percent of Americans planning to get away, according to a recent Bankrate survey. They’re also saying it’ll be one of the priciest, with higher rates for flights and hotels. But as a seasoned travel journalist and hospitality industry veteran – I’m on a plane three weeks out of every four – I know that there are ways to enjoy sun, sea, sand and substantial savings. I’ve used many of the tips below to lower my travel tab. Read on to see which ones might work for you.
Heading home to Miami from St. Maarten, I gave up my seat, spent the night at a beachfront resort at the airline’s expense, enjoyed a complimentary dinner and scored a travel voucher for $650
Time it right
When demand is high, so too are prices. To save on flights and hotels, plan to fly or stay when travel is slowest. I’ve found that means midweek for flights to leisure destinations (where most travelers opt for weekend visits), and, conversely, weekend stays at city hotels that are usually frequented by business travelers. Caribbean-bound? December to April is the region’s high season. But during the June-to-November hurricane season you’ll often find lower rates. Some resorts (last year’s list included Holiday Inn Resort Montego Bay and Palace Resorts) will also offer “hurricane guarantees,” which allow you to reschedule without penalty if a storm brews. (Airlines will usually waive change fees when a hurricane is imminent. But to be safe, consider purchasing travel insurance and confirm that the policy covers weather events.) And as someone who travels to the Caribbean throughout the summer, I can attest that those afternoon “pop-up” showers – which leave as quickly as they arrive – won’t spoil your stay. Then, once you’ve decided on your destination, consider using an online flight price tracker such as (my pick) Google Flights, Airfarewatchdog or Skyscanner so you know when prices are lowest.
My grandmother always said, “You never know until you ask.” It’s good advice for life in general, but it’s also great advice for when you’re traveling. Celebrating a special occasion? Tell the front desk when you check in and you just might score a free hotel room upgrade. Practically every time I’ve booked a compact rental car, I’ve been upgraded to a higher category just for asking. (Hot tip: The compacts almost always sell out fastest, so you’re most likely to be bumped up to a fancier car when you book this category.) And in restaurants, mentioning your anniversary or birthday can often result in a complimentary cocktail or dessert. So don’t be shy; speak up. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain!
Mind your memberships
Many professional organizations offer travel discounts and perks when you book through them. So, before you pay full price, open your wallet and check those affinity cards. Warehouse shopping clubs such as Costco and Sam’s Club; sororities including Alpha Kappa Alpha; and, of course, AARP could help you save big bucks on hotels, cars and flights. And don’t forget to check your credit card’s member benefits. I have the American Express Platinum card, which offers me room upgrades, complimentary breakfast and Wi-Fi when I book select hotels through their travel department.
Practically every time I’ve booked a compact rental car, I’ve been upgraded to a higher category just for asking. (Hot tip: The compacts almost always sell out fastest, so you’re most likely to be bumped up to a fancier car when you book this category.)
If you’re not locked into a particular date or destination, you’re in a great position to find the best deals. Heading to the New York area? Consider flying into a secondary airport such as Long Island’s Islip (ISP) or Westchester County Airport (HPN) in White Plains instead of the (often more expensive) gateways at JFK and La Guardia. If you can travel in the next day or two, you’ll find last-minute and potentially cheaper pricing on hotels and airfare at HotelTonight and CheapOair. Renting a car? If you can Uber or taxi into town, rental car rates will likely be cheaper there than at the airport counter.
Chow on the cheap
If you’re a foodie on a budget but still want to eat at the hot new restaurant in town, I always recommend reserving a table for lunch instead of dinner. Not only will you be more likely to get a reservation, but you’ll probably find cheaper items on daytime menus. Must do dinner? Consider sharing several small plates or appetizers between the whole table – a strategy that can work out to be less expensive than everyone ordering an app and a main course, and which also allows you to sample more of the menu. And don’t forget street food! Snacks and specialties sold by street vendors are popular with residents not just because they’re delicious, but also because they’re inexpensive. In Barbados, for example, a tasty and filling fish “cutter” (sandwich) from Cuzz’s popular beachfront food truck costs Bds$12/US$6.
Look out for the little things
Even if you didn’t get the cheapest flight or had to pay more for your hotel room than you budgeted, there are still small – but significant – ways you can save. Some of my favorites include avoiding baggage fees by traveling with only a carry-on, and packing a bag of snacks, so I don’t have to pay premium prices at the airport or at my destination. In cities, I take public transportation instead of a cab or simply walk to where I want to go. And I always Google “free walking tours” plus the name of the city to get an inexpensive, insider take on the place I’m visiting. (But don’t forget to tip your guide!) And many city museums have free hours or days, so check their website before you go.
Embrace the bump
It’s common practice for airlines to oversell seats on flights, anticipating that a percentage of passengers will be no-shows. But then, when everyone does check in, they need volunteers to give up their seats and take another flight, in exchange for travel vouchers, money or gift cards. (You’ll be notified via announcements at the boarding gate but often earlier via the airline’s app, so make sure you download it on your phone before you fly.) Legally, airlines are required to pay up to four times the cost of the ticket (up to a ceiling of $1,350 per person). But depending on the destination, the number of people the flight is oversold by and how many passengers are willing to change their plans, staff have the discretion to sweeten the offer even further. A few years ago, heading home to Miami from St. Maarten, I gave up my seat, spent the night at a beachfront resort at the airline’s expense, enjoyed a complimentary dinner and scored a travel voucher for $650 – a fair exchange, I thought, for a 24-hour delay. So, it can make sense to volunteer to be bumped – particularly if you live nearby (and can simply go back home) or if you don’t have work or other commitments at your destination the next day. The temporary inconvenience can put additional funds or travel credit in your pocket, and you can start your next vacation knowing you’ve saved before you’ve even left home!