You don’t have to spend over-the-top bucks to take an over-the-top trip this year. “The key is to be flexible with your dates and destinations,” says Patrick Surry, chief data scientist at Hopper, a Cambridge-based travel app company that analyzes billions of online airfare search results to determine the best times to buy a plane ticket. Even flashy five-star resorts and glamorous locales have offseasons, which can translate into major savings for savvy travelers. We consulted travel pros for their best penny-pinching strategies — everything from snagging airline upgrades to discounts on Michelin-starred meals.
PLAN TO SAVE
> Follow the money
The easiest way to lower expenses across the board is to choose a destination where the exchange rate is favorable and the cost of living is low, says Christine Sarkis, a senior editor at Boston-based SmarterTravel.com. Check out “Dollar-Stretching Destinations” for some ideas. “The US dollar is up 18 percent on the euro this year compared to [the end of] 2008, when prices were much higher,” says Tom Marchant, cofounder of UK luxury travel agency Black Tomato.
> Avoid high season
Mary Maguire, director of public and legislative affairs at AAA Northeast, always asks members booking a vacation the same question: “Can you travel offseason?” Taking a trip during low season or shoulder season (the period between high and low seasons) in a particular destination will help you not only avoid crowds but also scoop up steeply discounted hotel and airfare deals. That means hitting the desert, ski towns, and the Caribbean in the summer. The Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North in Arizona drops from $429 per night in January to $179 in August. In the winter, safari destinations like Botswana and Zambia are much more affordable because it’s the rainy season (euphemistically known as “green season”). Locking your plans down two weeks to one month before you go may yield the lowest rates, says Marchant.
> Shop the sales
Scour flash sale sites like Jetsetter.com and you may snag a deep discount. One example on Jetsetter: A junior room in a villa at Jamaica’s Round Hill Hotel and Villas went for $249 per night instead of the $399 rate quoted on the hotel’s website.
GET AROUND AFFORDABLY
> Skip cabs
In certain places, it’s significantly faster to take public transportation than a taxi. Hong Kong’s hyper-efficient Airport Express train takes about 20 minutes from the city center to the airport; a cab can sometimes take more than an hour.
> Commute like a local
If you’re going to use public transportation, make sure you buy a multi-day or weeklong transportation pass, says Hopper’s Surry. A seven-day unlimited-ride MetroCard in New York City costs $31; a seven-day London Tube card is $48. Those can be the equivalent of just two cab rides.
> Spin your wheels
Consider renting a bicycle or seeking out a city’s bike-share program. You’ll have “the freedom to experience your surroundings in a much more tactile way,” says UK travel agent Marchant. “You’ll also be able to cover much more ground than walking.”
> Plan your road trips
Group driving into consecutive days so you can get away with renting a car for only a portion of your vacation, says Maguire of AAA. Ask your hotel if it provides free airport transfers to the hotel or rides around town. Some luxury properties, such as the Excelsior Hotel Gallia in Milan, offer guests a free car ride within a certain radius of the property.
> Be on time
According to the number crunchers at Hopper, a good time to book a plane ticket for domestic travel can be between three and eight weeks before departure, though there is no foolproof general rule. For international trips, consider buying your ticket two to four months ahead of time for the best price.
> Rack up miles
Open an airline credit card with a high initial offering of at least 30,000 miles, suggests Hopper’s Surry. Use it to “pay for everyday costs, and book your hotel and other travel items on the card,” he says. “Then you can pay it off and scoop up the mileage offer.” Use the miles and points to book a free award flight, or cash them in for cabin upgrades (hello, business class!), VIP lounge passes, and more. Bonus: Some travel credit cards include rental car collision coverage, which can save you a bundle.
> Travel in style
JetBlue is slated to roll out its Mint premium service at Logan International Airport in March (the airline is booking now), starting with round-trip flights to San Francisco. Mint flights include 16 massaging seats that recline into beds, craft cocktails and amuse-bouches, and men’s and women’s beauty kits from Birchbox — all at prices that undercut most first-class fares. The airline also plans Mint service to Los Angeles and Barbados out of Boston next year. Fares start at $599.
> Search for specials
During Spa Week in the United States, October 12 through 18, hundreds of spas charge just $50 for treatments. The rest of the year, ask about midweek pricing and look into local Groupon deals for your destination.
> Get a (spa) room
Ask hotels if they have spa rooms or spa packages, suggests AAA’s Maguire. The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, for instance, offers a spa deal that combines an overnight stay with two pricey spa treatments at a rate that significantly undercuts a la carte pricing, says SmarterTravel.com’s Sarkis.
> Take it outside
If you’re at a destination with famous hot springs, don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path for a better deal, says Black Tomato’s Marchant. For example, rates at Iceland’s famed Blue Lagoon are at least $10 to $20 higher than at the less popular but equally stunning Myvatn Nature Baths. “Lesser-known locales will feel far more authentic and provide a chance to mingle with the locals,” he adds.
LIVE THE SUITE LIFE
> Find the newest property
When a hotel has a grand opening (or big-deal renovation), it will often run promotions, says Marchant. Until the end of September, the just-opened boutique hotel the Temple House in Chengdu, China, is offering a rate of $265 per night — with the second night free.
> Join the club
Before you show up at a hotel, join its guest loyalty program to reap benefits like free Wi-Fi, late checkout, complimentary breakfast, and more.
> Don’t check in on the weekend
Arrive between Sunday and Thursday for the best chance to get bumped into a nicer room. “You’re more likely to get an upgrade when the hotel is quieter midweek,” says Marchant. But whenever you arrive, it never hurts to ask for an upgrade or late checkout at the front desk — no one will hold your haggling against you.
> Spring for the house
When you’re traveling in a large group, it’s far cheaper and more comfortable to book a villa at a hotel or rent an entire home instead of multiple hotel rooms. Sites like Airbnb, Onefinestay, or HomeAway give you a range of choices in any destination. Look for apartment rentals in luxury buildings where you can use the gym, laundry room, pool, and other amenities, suggests Hopper’s Surry, who points out that these rentals also give you the chance to save some cash by cooking rather than dining out all the time.
> Deal with the kids
If you’re traveling with small children, some hotels and resorts offer packages that let kids stay free or at half price. (Check out FamilyVacationCritic.com for deals and ideas on where to take the whole crew.) Some even offer family-friendly perks like a kids’ club or complimentary baby-sitting so the grown-ups can take a break, too.
FEAST FOR LESS
> Splurge at lunch
That Michelin-starred restaurant or impossible-to-get-into hot spot is in your reach if you opt to eat a little earlier. “There’s something utterly luxurious about a leisurely lunch at a fabulous restaurant,” says Sarkis. You’ll get a similar experience but at a significantly lower price point. In New York, Mario Batali’s Del Posto offers a $49 three-course lunch. At dinner, the five-course tasting menu will set you back $126.
> Chat up the locals
Ask shopkeepers which restaurants they frequent — especially places that cater to locals. “The menu will be more sincere, authentic,” says Marchant, “and the prices much more modest.”
> Seek out happy hour
Take advantage of drink specials, managers’ free nightly cocktail receptions, and inexpensive appetizers at the hotel bar, suggests Surry. And don’t forget to get out and explore farmers’ markets, food trucks, and street-food stands to find bold flavors for less.
> Rethink the meal plan
Staying at an all-inclusive resort? Consider signing up for a “half board” (breakfast and dinner) meal plan instead of “full board,” says Marchant. At lunchtime, you’re more likely to be off-property and want to grab something on the go.
CUT COSTS ON CULTURE
> Walk the boards
If the play’s your thing, schedule a theater outing with the best prices by booking a matinee or a Tuesday or Wednesday evening, says Marchant. Or get in line at a discounted-ticket booth such as TKTS in London and New York for heavily reduced same-day tickets, says Sarkis.
> Look for discount passes
If you’re planning to stay busy on your trip, buy a ticket booklet that will get you discounts at large swaths of the most popular tourist attractions. CityPass offers cheaper ways to see highlights in 12 locales, including Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco. The one in New York includes six choices — the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty among them — at a 42 percent discount.
> Find freebies
Most museums have free-admission evenings, usually on the first or third weekend of the month, says Surry. Check local papers for listings of free music events, clubs with no cover charge, public parks and sculpture gardens, and free or donation-based guided tours.
> Step away from tourist traps
Avoid the main tourist haunts where vendors charge higher prices, says Marchant. Instead, find a signature product at your destination (handmade alpaca ponchos from Peru, leather jackets from Buenos Aires in Argentina, saris from India, tea from Sri Lanka), and ask a local barista or waiter where he goes to buy his own stock.
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