If you’re planning to head out on a summer vacation this year, you’re not alone. A 2017 AARP travel survey revealed that 99 percent of boomers intend to take at least one trip this year. And AAA said that more than a third of all Americans will embark on a family vacation in the next 12 months.
Although a week at the beach might sound like the ideal way to spend your summer vacation, warm weather travelers should note that costs are often higher in the peak season. If you want to cut costs on airfare and accommodations, you should do your research and plan ahead.
Here are some of the best ways to save money on your summer vacation without sacrificing the fun.
Be Flexible With Your Travel Plans
If your work schedule or kids’ school schedule isn’t too restrictive, the best way to keep the cost of a summer vacation down is to be flexible.
“Being flexible … will open the door to savings opportunities,” said money-saving expert Andrea Woroch.
For example, you might find that a town near the one you want to visit offers similar amenities — such as a beach or close access to theme parks — for a lower cost, Woroch said. Additionally, you should be flexible with your travel dates to cut costs.
“Sometimes flying a day earlier or later can make a huge difference,” said Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com. And check the prices of flights to all the airports in an area because you’ll find big savings, he said.
Travel on a Tuesday or Wednesday
Fridays during the summer are among the busiest travel days of the entire year, Woroch said. “Not only are you looking at bigger crowds and delays, but prices on airfare and even fuel will peak on this popular departure day,” she said.
And Sundays are expensive travel days year round. According to CheapAir.com’s annual survey, travelers can save an average of $73 by flying on a Tuesday or Wednesday rather than a Sunday.
Even car rental prices might be lower on these days, Woroch said. Consider leaving mid-week to score a vacation discount.
Book Flights Early to Get the Best Fares
Waiting until the last minute to book a flight is a surefire way to spend more than necessary. Klee recommended booking as early as you can, because prices will continue to rise as flights fill up.
In its survey of 921 million airfares from 2.9 million trips, CheapAir found that 54 days out was the best time to book a domestic flight for the lowest price. If you plan to travel internationally, start searching for your flights earlier. On average, 99 days out is ideal for trips to Hawaii, the Caribbean and Europe.
Get Refunds for Price Drops
There are several travel booking sites that will give you a refund if you book a hotel, flight or rental car through them and the price drops, said Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, the family vacations expert at About.com.
For example, if you book a hotel through Tingo.com and the price drops, it will automatically refund you the difference. At Yapta.com, you can add your flight details and get alerts if the fare drops, so you can get a credit for the difference with the airline. If you book a rental car through AutoSlash.com, the site will automatically rebook you at a lower rate if the price drops. Kelleher said she’s saved at least $40 every time she used AutoSlash.
Take Advantage of Membership Discounts
If you’re a member of the AARP, AAA or another professional organization, you might be entitled to special travel discounts. For example, members of the automotive club AAA can get up to 15 percent off rooms at several hotel chains.
Additionally, you might be able to save money on attractions at the destinations you visit. For example, many zoos and museums offer reciprocal memberships with other zoos and museums, Kelleher said — which means you can visit them for free or at a discount.
“Don’t forget about this money on the table,” she said.
Get Cash Back When Booking Online
There are several websites that let consumers earn back a percentage of the money they spent on qualifying purchases with the sites’ retail partners. You also can earn cash back — which is like saving money — by booking hotels, flights and rental cars through these sites with one of their travel partners.
Ebates.com offers cash back from dozens of travel merchants, with up to 13 percent cash back on hotels, cruises and vacation packages, said Brent Shelton, an online shopping expert with deals site FatWallet.com, which is the sister company of Ebates.com.
Get a Deal on Your Car Rental
There are several ways to get a deal on a rental car. You can use a site such as CarRentals.com, which provides a side-by-side comparison of rental options at your destination, Woroch said. You can also find coupon codes for car rentals at sites such as CouponSherpa.com.
If you’re a warehouse club member, Woroch recommended checking the club’s travel site to see if it’s offering any deals. She saved nearly $200 on a car rental for a trip to Maui a couple of years ago by booking through Costco Travel.
Avoid the Cost of Rental Insurance
Check with your auto insurance company to see if it covers rental cars under your policy. That way, you won’t have to purchase extra insurance from the rental car agency, said Karen Hoxmeier, owner of money-saving site MyBargainBuddy.com. Following this tip can save you $20 to $40 a day in unnecessary insurance costs from the agency, she said.
Keep Down the Cost of Driving Your Own Car
If you take a road trip, you can get up to 15 percent better fuel mileage out of your vehicle by using cruise control while driving on the highway, Hoxmeier said. You also can improve your gas mileage by up to 4 percent by having your car tuned up before you hit the road and another 3 percent by having your tires inflated to the proper pressure, she said.
Download a free app, such as GasBuddy, to see the lowest gas prices in an area. That way, you’ll know which station to fill up at along the highway and at your destination.
Pack Snacks for Road Trips
If you’re driving to your destination, Woroch recommended packing snacks, sandwiches and drinks so you don’t have to spend money on fast food along the way. Make sure you choose nonperishable items, such as granola bars, to bring along while you explore your destination.
“This way, you don’t have to stop in pricey tourist restaurants or hotel pool bars for a snack,” she said.
Woroch also suggested bringing a refillable water bottle so you don’t have to waste money on bottled water, which is typically marked up at popular tourist destinations.
Save Money With a Vacation Rental Property
Rather than stay in a hotel, consider booking a vacation rental property. Sites such as Airbnb.com, HomeAway.com and VRBO.com offer low rates on apartment, condo and house rentals worldwide.
“You can double the space for half the cost of a traditional hotel,” Woroch said. “Plus, you get access to a kitchen so you can prepare most of your meals and cut back on dining out, which can really eat into your travel budget.”
Ideally, you should book several months in advance for the best selection and pricing. But you might be able to get a last-minute deal by calling the property owner to ask for a discount. The owner might give you a cheaper rate to fill the space rather than let it sit empty, Woroch said.
Join a Hotel Loyalty Program
If you plan to stay in a hotel, sign up for its loyalty program before booking a room. The programs are typically free to join and can help you score discounted rates.
Currently, Hilton offers its Honors members great benefits, such as free WiFi and points for use on free stays.
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Get a Room With a Kitchenette
When booking a hotel, Kelleher recommended looking for properties that have kitchen facilities in the rooms — such as a microwave, refrigerator and wet bar — so you can make inexpensive meals rather than dining out every day. This can be a big money saver, especially for families.
“Eating out three meals a day, seven days a week, is a lot of money for a family,” she said.
Stay in a Hotel With Free Meals
In addition to making your own simple meals in your hotel room, you can cut costs by avoiding meal prices altogether. Kids 12 and younger eat free at Holiday Inn hotels that have on-site restaurants. Comfort Inn and Hampton Hotels are among the hotels that offer guests a free hot breakfast, while Embassy Suites, Homewood Suites and Residence Inn boast free breakfast and snacks and drinks in the evening.
Snag a Deal With Someone’s Unwanted Hotel Reservation
You can get a deal on a hotel room by taking advantage of other people’s canceled travel plans. Woroch said that RoomerTravel.com connects travelers with those who are stuck with hotel reservations they can’t change. The site facilitates the purchase of reservations for up to 25 percent below market price.
Or, if you’ve reserved a nonrefundable room but have to cancel your trip, you can get some of your money back using this service.
Get a Package Deal
Although most travelers think that package deals for flights, hotels and other travel products are more expensive, the opposite is true, said Clem Bason, CEO of hotel booking site goSeek.com.
“Bundles obscure the prices for individual travel products, allowing airlines, hoteliers and rental cars to discount more aggressively than they otherwise might,” he said. “You’d be surprised at how much you can save with a package.”
Bason said he shops for each component of his travel separately, then searches on a site such as Expedia.com for a package deal with a lower price. “And even better, it’s easier to book everything all in one spot,” he said.
“Whether you’re headed to the beach, mountains or a favorite lake this summer, you can save a lot of money by opting to camp instead of renting a home or staying in a hotel,” Woroch said. You can find camping spots that cost as little as $5 per night through ReserveAmerica.com.
There are also plenty of free campground sites at state parks and other locations, but you’ll need to get to your destination early to secure one of these first-come, first-served spots, Woroch said. Pack food in a cooler that you can cook over an open fire, and take advantage of free activities such as hiking and swimming to cut costs further.
Sign Up for Daily Deals
Sign up with daily deals sites, such as Groupon and LivingSocial, to get alerts for discounts on attractions, outings and restaurants in the area you’ll be visiting. These sites also offer discounts on accommodations and vacation packages.
“It’s such an easy way to find deals,” Kelleher said. However, she recommended that you create a separate email account for these alerts, so you can keep track of them and avoid clogging your regular inbox with offers.
Cut the Cost of Attractions
If you visit a big city, you can save money on attractions by buying passes that offer discounted admission to several must-see spots. Bason recommended investing in a Go City Card by Smart Destinations to save up to 55 percent on a city’s major attractions.
Another option is a CityPASS. Available for 12 North American destinations — including Boston, Chicago and New York City — the pass offers discounted admission to a handful of the most popular sights in each locale. Or avoid spending a dime on activities and attractions by doing an online search for “free things to do in [name of city].”
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Find the Cheapest Airport Parking
The cost of airport parking can add up quickly if you take a trip that spans several days. You can cut the price tag by using a site such as AirportParkingReservations.com, which provides a list of parking lots near a particular airport, reviews of those lots and the going rates to help you find more affordable long-term parking, Woroch said.
“I use this site all the time to find cheaper parking lots near Los Angeles and Burbank airports,” she said. She typically finds lots that are $5 to $10 cheaper per day than the airport’s economy lot.
About the Author
Cameron Huddleston is an award-winning journalist with more than 18 years of experience writing about personal finance. Her work has appeared in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, Business Insider, Chicago Tribune, Fortune, MSN, USA Today and many more print and online publications. She also is the author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: How to Have Essential Conversations With Your Parents About Their Finances.
U.S. News & World Report named her one of the top personal finance experts to follow on Twitter, and AOL Daily Finance named her one of the top 20 personal finance influencers to follow on Twitter. She has appeared on CNBC, CNN, MSNBC and “Fox & Friends” and has been a guest on ABC News Radio, Wall Street Journal Radio, NPR, WTOP in Washington, D.C., KGO in San Francisco and other personal finance radio shows nationwide. She also has been interviewed and quoted as an expert in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Forbes, MarketWatch and more.
She has an MA in economic journalism from American University and BA in journalism and Russian studies from Washington & Lee University.