With the summer travel season just a couple of months away, you might be making plans for a family vacation, getaway with friends or even a solo trip. If you need to stick to a budget, one of the key parts of your travel planning is finding ways to avoid unnecessary expenses on your journey.
That's right: There are plenty of fees — both big and small — you can dodge when you vacation. You can also keep down the cost of flights, accommodations, food and more common travel expenses without cutting back on the fun.
Avoid the High Cost of Peak Travel Times
You can keep travel expenses manageable if you time your trips right. For starters, avoid traveling during the peak season, if possible.
"It's amazing what a difference it can make to go a few weeks after peak season," said Greg Geronemus, co-CEO of smarTours, a guided tour company based in New York City. "You can get essentially the same weather and spend a lot less on everything from airfare to hotels." For example, rather than limiting your search for flights and accommodations at the beach to one week in the summer, check prices across all the summer months and even in late spring and early fall to find the best deals.
If your schedule allows you to travel only during the peak season, make sure you don't plan a trip for the "peak" of peak season. "Book away from major holiday periods," said Jay Walker, chairman and CEO of Upside.com, a business travel booking site. "Memorial Day, July Fourth and Labor Day are generally when summer travelers will pay the most for their itineraries."
Avoiding peak travel times can also save you money. For example, Walker recommends flying early in the morning or late at night and on Tuesdays or Sundays to get the cheapest fares.
"Even small, incremental changes in itinerary can generate discounts on travel, even during peak summer travel seasons," he said. "If you have to travel during a given week, try adding or subtracting a day from your itinerary. Often, a change of a day or two will generate a cheaper fare or rate."
Avoid Airport and Cruise Parking Fees
Parking at an airport or cruise terminal can cost $20 or more per day, said Andie Gibson, managing partner at AirportParkingHelper.com. You might be able to avoid this travel fee by staying at a hotel that offers free parking packages the night before departure.
"If you need a hotel room anyway, choosing a hotel that allows you to park your car for free while you're gone is a no-brainer," Gibson said. "When you pre-book a hotel with airport parking included, you enjoy peace of mind knowing you've got a guaranteed spot to leave your vehicle — unlike most on-site airport economy lots, which don't allow pre-booking and can fill up."
On the day of your departure, simply take the hotel shuttle to the airport or cruise terminal. This strategy can especially pay off for travelers who have to drive an hour or more to get to a city with an airport or cruise terminal. By staying overnight, you might even be able to book a cheaper early morning flight — without having to get up at the crack of dawn.
If you don't need a hotel room prior to the trip, you can find cheap airport parking alternatives and coupons at AirportParkingHelper.com.
Avoid Airline Baggage Fees
It's getting harder to avoid baggage fees — but not impossible. JetBlue, which once let passengers check one bag for free, now charges $25 per bag checked at the airport, unless you opt for a higher tier fare. Southwest Airlines is the only major airline that still lets passengers check bags for free on domestic flights.
However, you might be able to avoid this travel fee on other airlines if you use their branded credit cards to buy your tickets.
"For example, with the American Airlines Citi AAdvantage Mastercard, you will receive a free checked bag for yourself and up to four companions traveling on the same itinerary," said Anna Rice, a travel blogger at TheWeekendJetsetter.com. "For a family of five, the savings from just one trip already amounts to more than the annual fee of the credit card ($95)."
You also might be able to avoid fees if you opt to bring only a carry-on bag. Believe it or not, a small bag can be enough to get you through even a long trip — if you pack wisely, that is. Collette Stohler, creative director of travel blog Roamaroo.com, said she traveled around the world for a year and a half with only a carry-on bag. She recommends packing no more than two pairs of shoes, taking only solid-color clothing that can be mixed and matched and wearing layers — including your bulkiest clothing — on the plane.
But even this strategy doesn't work on all airlines. Low-cost carriers like Frontier and Spirit charge for carry-on bags, and some major airlines have started billing passengers for bringing aboard anything other than a small personal item.
"Basic Economy fares from United and American do not include a full-sized carry-on suitcase to go in the overhead bin," said Benjamin Glaser, an editor with DealNews.com.
So, make sure you check airlines' baggage fees before booking a flight. You might find that the cheapest flight won't cost you the least if you have to pay more for your luggage. A flight that costs slightly more might be a better deal if you can take a carry-on or check a bag for free.
Avoid Hotel Fees
Hotel fees hit a record high of $2.55 billion in 2016, according to a report by New York University's Jonathan M. Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism. Knowing what you might be charged extra for can help you avoid some of these fees.
For example, hotels are increasingly charging for early check-in, holding luggage until a room is ready or after check-out and guaranteeing a specific room type, according to the study. Be sure to ask about fees before using any hotel service or amenity.
Another way to avoid some fees is to become a member of hotel loyalty programs. "Loyalty programs are usually free to sign up for on a hotel's website, but you can also ask to be registered at check-in," said Rice.
One of the perks you can often get as a member is free WiFi, she said. Some loyalty programs, such as Hilton Honors, offer members discounted room rates and late check-out.
These programs typically allow members to earn points for staying at hotel properties and cash in those points for free stays. Often, as you earn more points, your status increases, and you have access to more benefits. You also can get perks and achieve higher rewards statuses faster with a hotel branded credit card.
Avoid the High Cost of Food While Traveling
The cost of food while traveling can add up quickly if you eat all of your meals at restaurants — or even fast food joints. However, you can avoid eating out for most or all of your meals if you pick your accommodations carefully.
Instead of booking a standard hotel room, look for one with a kitchenette or stay in a vacation rental with a full kitchen. A study commissioned by Wyndham Vacation Rentals found that travelers saved $898 a week by using the kitchens in their vacation rentals rather than dining out. They cooked 12 meals, on average — five breakfasts, four lunches and three dinners.
Staying in a vacation rental property also might help lower your overall lodging costs. According to HomeAway.com, the average price per night for a 1,300-square-foot rental condo is $99. On the other hand, the average price of a hotel room is $118, and the average room size is just 400 square feet. You can find vacation rental properties on sites such as HomeAway.com, VacationRentals.com and VRBO.com.
Avoid Unnecessary Rental Car Expenses
If you have to rent a car for your vacation, keep the cost down by avoiding unnecessary fees. "Car rentals agencies always slam you with tons of charges at the last minute," Glaser said. "One avoidable one is additional insurance."
The rental car company will likely offer you the option to buy insurance coverage, but there's a good chance you're already covered.
"Before you travel, call your credit card provider and ask if they will provide collision insurance if you pay for the rental with your card," Glaser said. "Also, check with your own automobile insurance provider to see if they will cover your rental. If either says yes, you likely don't need any more."
You also can save money on rental cars by filling up the gas tank before you drop off the car, rather than prepaying the rental company to refuel it for you. If possible, don't rent a car from the airport, because you'll pay more thanks to concessions fees rental agencies pay to airports — and pass on to consumers.
Avoid Foreign Transaction Fees
If you travel overseas, you could get hit with a variety of fees for using your debit or credit card. For example, your bank might charge you a foreign transaction fee for withdrawing cash from an ATM in a foreign country. Your credit card issuer also might charge you a fee for using your card overseas.
"Today, there are many credit cards and checking accounts that do not charge consumers foreign transaction fees or ATM fees," Rice said. "If you're traveling without one, you could be wasting hundreds of dollars on a trip on fees."
She recommends the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, which has no foreign transaction fees. And the Capital One 360 checking account and debit card "allow you to take out money around the world for free," Rice said.