The pandemic changed the nature of global travel more than any other event in recent history — but the nature of planning and booking travel was evolving long before the virus arrived in 2020. Today’s travelers can scour the internet for the cheapest flights, hotels rooms, cruises, and vacation packages, book their stays, and make arrangements all in the same app.
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That’s bad news for travel agents, who for generations made their livings by doing exactly that — but the industry is hardly obsolete. Annie Davis, president of Palm Beach Travel, says that Kayak, Expedia, and the rest can’t provide the specialized knowledge, local connections, or on-the-ground experience that a good travel professional delivers.
“An agent with the inside information is on a first-name basis with the hotels and restaurants at your destinations,” Davis said. “They will know when the best time to travel is to get you the most value.”
1. Live Like a Local
A travel agent’s local connection can come in handy, especially for travelers hoping to avoid tourists traps. For example, Midtown Manhattan is very popular with tourists, but travel agents recommend researching restaurants and attractions popular with the people who live and work in New York City.
“The best dining and cultural experiences New York City can offer are within the neighborhoods where locals enjoy their everyday living,” said Michael Brozek, former American Express Travel destination manager for New York City. “Local restaurants and bars are what make New York City so special, and there’s so much to discover. So don’t get trapped at an overpriced chain restaurant. Go explore something different.”
Another way to save money and live like a local: Plan on walking and taking public transit where and when you can.
“Travel on foot if the distance is no longer than 20 blocks away, or grab a taxi or Uber if you’re going crosstown,” Brozek said. “But if you’re going uptown or downtown, it’s always most efficient on the subway.”
This is a great way to not only curb your spending, but lets you take in parts of the city you might not have noticed otherwise.
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2. Be an Early Bird
Planning ahead can also save big bucks when traveling, and early birds can worm their way into significant deals and discounts, said Melissa da Silva, president of travel company Trafalgar USA.
“Booking with plenty of lead time can lead to huge savings for travelers,” da Silva said. “Airlines and train companies are renowned for increasing fares the closer to travel time, while guided vacation [providers] such as Trafalgar offer savings of 7.5% to 10% when booked up to a year in advance.”
Depending on the destination, planning ahead by even a few months can save upwards of 15% or more, and the savings can increase the farther ahead you plan.
“These are significant savings, representing hundreds of dollars, simply by being organized and getting in early,” da Silva said.
But this line of thinking can apply to more than just things like airfare. Isar Meitis, president of e-commerce at Turico Holidays, said that a little planning can also help time-pressed tourists avoid lines at a number of activities.
“Many tourist attractions are cheaper if you book them in advance compared to a walk-in,” Meitis said. “Plus, tickets can usually be picked up from a will call kiosk or booth, which also saves significant time.”
At Walt Disney World, for example, several resorts have rooms that are up to 25% cheaper for Disney+ subscribers.
3. Or Play the Waiting Game
Meitis also said that those willing to be patient can also score big savings.
“Oftentimes, if cruises have a few extra rooms they need to sell before launch date, they’ll offer them at killer rates,” he said. “Check the cruise company’s website a few days before the launch or check out deal sites.”
Once the cruise leaves port, empty rooms represent unrealized revenue for cruise companies. They’d rather give passengers deep discounts and hope they make up for it in shipboard spending.
Operators like Norwegian Cruise Line offer last-minute deals on their sites. For example, spontaneous travelers willing to travel in February can save more than 60% on a five-day Western Caribbean cruise starting at $60 a night.
4. Save in Suburbia
For those who happen to be traveling with a vehicle, Meitis suggests looking into rates a bit further away from a city’s bustling center.
“Stay just outside of big cities,” he said. “You’ll find more upscale hotels for around half the price and parking will be much more reasonably priced.”
For someone traveling in March, for example, a room at the Hilton in downtown Chicago will cost at least $286. In Evanston, Ill., just under 30 miles north, however, rooms start at $98 for the same Friday night.
Longer stays, especially during weekdays, can be discounted even more, as well as help save money on other expenses like parking the vehicle you’re traveling in.
5. Opt for Homes Over Hotels
Peer-to-peer home-rental sites such as Airbnb and HomeAway have made it easier than ever for travelers who want to opt-out of a more traditional hotel room. And for those traveling with a group, renting an entire home can be a great way to save in more ways than one, Meitis said.
“If traveling with a small or large group, look into renting a vacation home,” he said. “Splitting the cost of a three- or four-bedroom home, where you aren’t forced to eat in a restaurant for three meals a day, can make a huge difference to your budget.”
6. Forgo Fridays Off
As far as three-day weekends go, however, Meitis recommends taking Monday off instead of Friday.
“Maybe my number one tip: Take Monday off instead of Friday,” he said. “Sunday is typically the cheapest night at a hotel.”
That’s particularly true if the hotel attracts business travelers. Sunday room rates tend to be a bargain over Friday even in vacation hotspots like Las Vegas, which also offers mid-week deals.
As just one illustration, rates at the MGM Grand Las Vegas start at $59 for Sundays in April vs. $229 for Friday night stays in the same month.
7. Shoulder Some Savings
While days off are typically associated with holidays, summers and occasionally spring break, travelers with more flexibility can discover new ways to save on a trip.
“Here in Central America, the seasons are flip-flopped. December through Easter is our summertime and the peak weather dates to visit,” said Rob Harper, co-owner/director of business development for Namu Travel Group, a network of luxury travel agencies in Central America.
“While August through November tends to be fairly rainy, ‘shoulder season’ months like May, June and the first three weeks of December offer the best combination of value — low prices and good weather.” There are plenty of perks to traveling in the off-season.
In November, one of the months Harper recommends, hotel rooms can be found for less than $100, with several options for less than $200 a night. In March, a peak visiting month, hotel rooms tend to start closer to $250 and go up in price from there.
8. Seek Savings Through Promotions and Packages on Multi-Day Trips
Longer stays can have other incentives baked into the overall cost, too. Incentives like a free night’s stay or various nearby excursions are often there to help entice travelers book these multi-day stays.
Harper also pointed out that many travel agencies have all-inclusive package deals to help travelers save even more.
“For travelers looking to book single-day excursions or one hotel, better deals are likely to be had direct with providers,” he said. “For those interested in longer trips — three days or more — or customized itineraries with several moving parts, discounted opportunities are much more likely online with agencies.”
9. Find Sweet Suites
Suites may be more about extra room than ultra-luxe amenities, Harper said, and scheduling one for family travel can save money — and sanity.
“Booking a room that feels more like an apartment rental with adjoining rooms and a small living space can be less expensive than simply booking two separate rooms,” he said.
For instance, two-room bungalows in Boca Chica, Panama, designed to accommodate two adults and two children for a mid-December daily rate starting as low as $150 compared with single-room bungalows that start at $200.
10. Decline Dollar Deals
Trafalgar USA’s da Silva also recommends opting for the local currency when making purchases on foreign trips whenever possible.
“Many stores, particularly those in areas heavily frequented by travelers, now offer dynamic currency conversion where you can opt to make purchases in either U.S dollars or local currency,” she said.
While it may seem easier to track your spending by paying in U.S. dollars, this could actually end up costing you an additional 5% on purchases for currency conversion. Keep your calculator close and work in local currency instead.”
This also goes for credit card purchases, at least for those carrying a card with no foreign transaction fees. Merchants who give you the option to pay in dollars will likely levy a “dynamic currency conversion” fee, which they split with the bank handling the transaction. The exact amount can vary, but paying in the local currency is typically going to be the best bet, as it will help reduce hidden expenses.
11. Don’t Book High-End Hotels Online
Generally speaking, four- and five-star hotels have those ratings for a reason. While they often house spectacular spas, restaurants, occupy prime real estate or offer all other amenities, to get the best upscale hotel experience savvy travelers are better off working with a qualified travel agent.
Palm Beach Travel’s Annie Davis said that a good agent should not only be able to broker the best rate, but also get other perks such as complimentary breakfast, resort credit, early check-in, late check-out and even room upgrades.
“Luxury hotels are getting away from wholesalers and online bookings,” Davis said. “A luxury hotel sells on experience, not by price. Because of this, most four- and five-star hotels offer better packages and overall value when you book through a reputable, not discount, travel agency.”
She pointed to Peter Island Resort & Spa in the British Virgin Islands as a prime example. “It’s one of my favorite hotels in the world for an island getaway,” Davis said. “When my clients arrive, they have a complimentary upgrade upon arrival if available, complimentary breakfast daily, a $100 spa credit or lunch on Honeymoon Beach. For the same price you see online, my clients get so much more.”
12. Book Packages Just Before and During Holiday Weekends
Instead of planning to take a trip on Labor Day or Memorial Day, try planning a future trip on one of those weekends instead. Holidays are great times to book packages and other travel deals, according to Davis, who said her agents can usually uncover upwards of $200 in savings on client vacations as airlines and other travel providers introduce holiday-themed promotions for future travel.
“Sometimes, these are very good to book in advance for peak holiday travel season like Christmas and spring break,” Davis said. “For example, I have a client who wanted to travel to the Turks and Caicos. His only time off was Labor Day weekend. We waited until a Fourth of July sale to book his package with airfare to a five-star resort. We saved him over $2,000 because he used the promotion. Lesser-known holidays are sometimes the best.”
13. Use Your Points and Miles Wisely
Davis also believes that flights are the best use for points and miles accrued through credit card spending and rewards programs, and that travel agents can help make the most of them. She cites a client who wanted to travel to the Maldives for his honeymoon.
“He had 500,000 American Express membership reward points,” Davis said. “We researched his experience. He could fly economy class and stay at a three-star property for just a few dollars [in addition to his points]. Sounds like a great deal.”
It turns out that it wasn’t, given that the property had a $100 per day resort fee. Additionally, meals would have also cost him a minimum of $1,900, and tax and transfers weren’t included, either.
“We were able to maximize his point value and fly him business class on Etihad with a complimentary stopover in Abu Dhabi, seven nights at a four-star resort with an over-the-water bungalow, transfer included, for less money than the couple would have paid if they utilized all their points for a ‘free’ honeymoon,” Davis said.
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