Summer vacation is a time for rest and relaxation, but that doesn't mean you can afford to slack off before your trip. If you don't want to go over budget, you need to do your homework prior to hitting the road, sailing the seas or taking to the skies.
Here are some costly mistakes to avoid when booking your summer trip, along with tips to go on vacation without going broke.
Traveling at the Peak of Peak Season
Summer is the prime tourist season in many destinations. So if you take a vacation in the summer — and the majority of Americans do — you'll likely pay peak-season rates.
"There is a premium for going at the height of the season," said Brian Ek, a travel analyst for Priceline.com.
But rates can vary throughout the prime summer travel season, especially for accommodations. For example, you can get better lodging prices at beach locales in early June than you can in late June or July, which are the height of peak season, said Cheryl Rosner, founder and CEO of boutique and independent hotel booking site Stayful.com. So, as you plan your vacation, check prices for several dates throughout the summer to find when rates are lowest.
Waiting Too Long to Book Your Flight
Whether you're indecisive about your travel plans or decide at the last minute to take a trip, booking a flight a few weeks (or days) before your summer vacation will likely cost you.
Travelers who book their tickets less than 14 days in advance of a flight pay an average of $150 more per ticket, according to CheapAir.com's 2017 Annual Airfare Study. If you wait until the day before you travel, you'll pay $249 more, on average. The study recommended that you buy your ticket during the "prime booking window," which is one to four months before departure.
The best time to book a domestic flight to get the lowest fare is 54 days in advance, according to the study. That's an average, though. For flights to popular destinations during their peak seasons, you'll likely get a better fare by booking even further in advance. For flights to Europe, for example, you should book 99 days in advance to get the lowest rates.
Read More: 10 Insider Secrets to Get a Free Flight
Booking Your Hotel Too Far in Advance
Unlike airfare, hotel room prices typically drop as you get closer to the check-in date, Ek said. Because hotels are only 60 percent occupied on any given night, on average, Ek said you can often get a discounted rate on a room if you wait until the last minute to book.
He cautioned that this strategy can backfire if you're traveling to a popular destination during peak season, when hotels fill up quickly. But it can be a good way to save money on a hotel if you're driving to a popular destination and have to stop along the way in a small or mid-size city. Also, you can take the guesswork out of deciding when to reserve a room by booking through a travel app or site that automatically re-books your room if the hotel lowers its price and refunds you the difference.
Not Checking for Hotel Fees
You might think you got a good deal when you booked that hotel online. However, when you check out, there could be a long list of hotel fees you weren't expecting.
Travelers are often caught off guard by extra charges, such as resort fees, WiFi fees, baggage holding fees and even charges for using the in-room coffee maker, Rosner said, because they aren't always displayed prominently on booking sites. U.S. hotels were expected to collect an estimated $2.25 billion in fees and surcharges in 2014, according to a trend analysis report by the New York University School of Professional Studies.
To avoid an unpleasant surprise at checkout, ask hotels for a list of fees when you check in or call ahead to see what sort of surcharges they levy. You can also use the hotel fee lookup tool at ResortFeeChecker.com to find out what fees are charged by more than 2,000 hotels worldwide. And Rosner said that Stayful.com tries to make fees transparent on its site, so you'll know about them upfront when booking. Many of the boutique hotels that can be booked through Stayful.com tend to include the extras in their base rates rather than charging separately for them, she said.
Also Read: 50 Things Your Hotel Will Give You for Free
Overlooking Travel Package Deals
Searching for the best deals on hotels and airfare can be exhausting, especially if you plan to visit multiple destinations on your summer trip. However, you can often save time — and money — by opting for a package deal from a travel booking site such as Expedia.com or Priceline.com.
Ek said travelers can save $200 to $300 or more per person by booking a flight and hotel bundled together. According to him, airlines and hotels can price flights and rooms lower for packages because these offers don't show how much you're paying for each — just a flat rate.
Not Considering Vacation Rental Properties
For plenty of people, a vacation means not having to make the beds and cook meals, which is why they opt for a hotel. But a vacation rental property — such as a condo, apartment or house — can be a more budget-friendly option. You might not get room service, but you will get a kitchen so you can cook your own meals and avoid pricey restaurant meals, no hidden fees and more space — often for a lower price than a hotel.
"Vacation rentals offer, on average, twice the space at half the cost of a hotel room," said Jon Gray, chief revenue officer of HomeAway.com, a site that helps travelers find vacation rentals. Plus, you can split the cost with friends or another family if you rent a property with several bedrooms. You can find vacation rental property listings on sites such as Airbnb.com, VRBO.com, VacationRentals.com and VacationHomeRentals.com.
Not Being Flexible With Your Travel Plans
Sometimes your work schedule or your kids' school schedules restrict your travel times. But if you have wiggle room, you should use it to your advantage.
"Travel flexibility is a commodity that's worth money in the travel market, and you can leverage it," Ek said.
For example, when he was searching for flights for a trip to Venice, Italy, Ek said he was able to shave a couple hundred dollars off airline tickets for himself and his wife by flying out on a Wednesday rather than a Friday. Always check a range of dates when booking flights and lodging, and don't restrict yourself to a specific airline or hotel if you want to get the best price.
Dismissing Free Entertainment and Activities
Being a tourist can be expensive if you visit all the must-see attractions. But often, you can get a better feel for a city — and avoid throngs of other tourists — by doing what the locals do for free.
"All major cities have great free things to do," Rosner said.
You can use the DoStuff app to find out what's happening in 21 North American cities — including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
Forgetting to Budget for Souvenirs
Take a vacation to the beach, and your kids will probably want T-shirts as souvenirs. Or go to New York and you might do a little — OK, a lot — of shopping. But if you don't set a budget for souvenirs and extras in advance, you might go overboard.
When my family takes trips, my husband and I tell our children that they are limited to one small souvenir. If they want anything else, they have to pay for it with their own money. Let your children know in advance what the budget for "extras" is. And don't forget to set a limit for yourself, too.