It's a good year for U.S. travelers to venture abroad. The strong dollar helps stretch your travel budget, making train tickets, hotels and restaurants in many destinations around the world more affordable. Just don't expect similar bargains on plane tickets. Low fuel prices haven't lowered the cost of airfares. Consolidation in the airline industry and decreased competition mean bargain prices are harder to come by.
But we can help you get good deals on all your travel plans. We asked industry insiders and travel Web site editors to weigh in with their top tips and smartest strategies for getting the best prices with the least hassle on airfares, cruises, hotels and vacation packages.
1) Fly when no one else wants to. Fares rise and fall with air traffic -- so says the law of supply and demand. In general, plan to fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday or in the afternoon on Saturday to bag a cheaper domestic flight.
Early mornings and late nights are also less popular and more affordable times to fly, as are Thanksgiving and the eves and days of Christmas and New Year's. If you want to find the best month to take your trip, plug your home airport and getaway location into Hotwire.com's TripStarter tool to see the cheapest times to fly. Besides saving money, avoiding peak travel days will often mean you'll travel on less-crowded flights and go through shorter airport security lines.
2) Be flexible about where you go. You can use Kayak's Explore tool to pinpoint on a world map all the destinations you can visit within your airfare budget. This interactive tool lets you select a departure city and month or season of travel, then adjust a sliding scale to set a maximum ticket price. Airfares that fit into your budget will populate a map, and you can click on a city for details. Google Flights has a similar feature, and you can browse by precise dates. Select "expand map," enter your travel dates, choose a price limit, and airfares that fit will pop up. Click on a city for a bar graph displaying fares for other date combinations.
3) Sign up for free e-mail alerts from airlines or other travel sites such as Airfarewatchdog or follow them on social media. You can get early access to coupon codes and flash sales, which can reduce a round-trip fare that's typically $1,200 to $1,800 down to $700, says George Hobica, president of Airfarewatchdog. Plus, getting pinged regularly with ticket prices can help you develop a point of reference to recognize good deals.
4) Make sure you're buying your tickets at the right time. According to airfare booking site CheapAir, the magical time to score the cheapest domestic flight is 47 days before departure, on average. Data from Kayak falls in line with this recommendation, finding that the best time to book a domestic flight is four to six weeks ahead of take off. Optimal booking days for international trips vary, from two to four weeks in advance to head to the Caribbean to six months before leaving for Europe, according to Kayak. Also, be sure to check out Kayak's price-predicting tool. Just enter your itinerary, and the site will return a list of fares with a recommendation to either buy now -- because it expects the fare to rise -- or wait for a soon-to-come fare drop.
5) If you're booking a last-minute flight, consider buying a vacation package. Online travel agencies lock in lower fares early and combine them with cheap hotel stays. At the eleventh hour, when fares may spike elsewhere, these bundles may cost less than purchasing the flight alone.
6) Keep an eye on fares, even after you book. You have the right to change or cancel your flight plans for free within 24 hours of booking, thanks to rules introduced by the Department of Transportation in 2012. So if you find a better fare within that window, you can snatch the savings with no penalty.
After 24 hours, if you find your booked fare has dropped, some airlines may be willing to refund you the difference. Use Yapta.com to track any price changes on nine major airlines. Most airlines charge change fees, but Yapta takes those into account and notifies you only if a price drop exceeds that fee. Then the site guides you through the process of contacting the airline to get your voucher.
7) Avoid the extra baggage fees that most airlines charge. Southwest continues to allow two free checked bags; JetBlue permits one (though the airline has announced that it will introduce a new checked-bag fee structure in 2015). See SmarterTravel for a comprehensive list of fees from 13 major U.S. airlines. And weigh the costs of carrying luggage versus shipping it -- see KIP TIP: Save Money By Shipping Your Luggage.
8) Add a free destination. You may be able to squeeze an extra destination into your itinerary at no cost--or for a smidge more than what you're already paying for your flight. Some airlines offer a free stopover (a break of more than 24 hours) in their hub cities en route to another country. Find these deals under "special offers" or by searching "stopover" on the airline's Web site.
For example, Icelandair lets passengers hop off in Iceland when traveling between North America and Europe. Air Canada allows breaks in three cities on routes to foreign countries. For layovers more than six hours long in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, the airline even provides you with a one-night hotel stay for free or starting at $49, depending on your ticket type. Singapore Airlines and Turkish Airlines offer similar deals including lodging. If you can't find details online, call the airline to inquire about no-cost stops on your route.
9) Get a travel rewards card. Keep these ingredients in mind when shopping for a travel-friendly credit card: no foreign transaction fee, a microchip and generous rewards. Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard ($89 annual fee, waived the first year) offers a chip along with extra-secure PIN capability. You earn 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 within 90 days of opening your account. If you would rather trade significant rewards for no annual fee, consider the PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature, which is also chip- and PIN-enabled.
10) Go off-season -- an especially savvy strategy if you select a destination that's designed for large peak-season crowds. Desperate to fill rooms, hotels will slash rates or throw in perks, such as free Wi-Fi or spa credits. For example, consider business or convention hotels after the suits have departed for the weekend and beach resorts in the spring (after spring break) or fall.
11) Book directly through a hotel's Web site. Many places offer lower rates for online booking. You can also sign up to get hotels' e-mails about special promotions and discounts. Just remember the lowest rates are usually prepaid and non-refundable. If you think your plans might change, you'll have to pay the higher, more flexible rates.
12) Pick up the phone. Sometimes a call can yield greater savings than booking on the Web. For hotels, contact the front desk and see whether the agent can beat the online rate. Mention anything that could get you a discount, such as being a senior, a member of AAA or a government employee. If the agent won't budge, ask for the duty manager.
13) Be flexible to save on a high-class stay. Private-sale sites, such as JetSetter.com, offer deep discounts on luxury hotels for a limited time. But the destinations are random and most sites only offer a few deals at a time.
14) Book blind for rock-bottom rates. The "Priceline Negotiator" and Hotwire.com's "Secret Hot Rates" can cut up to 60% off regular hotel rates. With either site, you specify your length of stay, preferred neighborhood and a guaranteed minimum star class; with Priceline's "Name Your Own Price" tool, you must also submit a bid. But you won't know the exact hotel or location until after you pay -- an especially big risk when visiting unfamiliar areas, particularly overseas. (Blind booking works fine for car rentals, too; a sedan is a sedan is a sedan. But it's a bigger gamble for flights because you won't know exact departure times or airlines.)
15) Keep an eye on lodging rates, even after you book. If you see a lower rate on the same type of room at your hotel, call the front desk and see if they'll match it. Tingo.com specializes in this kind of cash-back courtesy -- if you book a "Money Back" room through the site, it will track the hotel's rates and automatically refund you if the price drops. One catch: You have to prepay for your stay.
Even better, take advantage of the best-rate guarantees from hotel chains such as Hyatt and Starwood. If you find a better rate on a third-party site for the same hotel and room type, they'll beat the lower rate by 20%. Orbitz offers a similar guarantee to its rewards members. After booking, if you find a better rate on another site, the online travel agency will award you 100% of the difference in "Orbucks." You also get $50 to $200 in the site's trademark currency, depending on your rewards-member status, up to the total price you paid.
16) Fight the fees. Call your hotel to confirm an online reservation -- especially if you booked at the last minute -- and check to see whether you're being charged additional fees. Hotels may be willing to waive fees, especially for frequent visitors or rewards-program members. Also, request a copy of your bill the night before you check out so that you have time to dispute any extra charges.
17) Switch hotels mid stay. Say you're booking a hotel for a five-night stay starting on Saturday night. If Saturday and Sunday are more expensive than Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, you may pay for all five nights at the highest daily price. Consider switching hotels midway through your trip if you can find a comparable hotel for a cheaper weekday rate.
18) Visit the concierge. You'll get the inside scoop on discount theater tickets, two-for-one restaurant deals and other entertainment. Or get help before you check in. Expedia offers "Local Experts" to give advice on a few popular vacation destinations, including Hawaii, Orlando and Mexico. And Room 77, a hotel aggregator start-up, offers concierge service to help you locate the right room for you at three- to five-star hotels.
19) Hotels and airlines don't like to advertise sales because it hurts the brand, says Sean Murphy, editor in chief of travel Web site Jetsetter. Instead, he says, they'll often package a trip to disguise the discount. Online travel agencies Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz are well known for their bundled bargains. But don't forget to check packages offered by airlines, such as United Vacations and Southwest Vacations, as well as smaller travel operators such as Apple Vacations and Gate 1 Travel. Daily deal sites have gotten in on the act, too, with Groupon Getaways and LivingSocial Escapes.
20) Seek all-inclusive deals to pay just once for your whole vacation -- including lodging, food, drinks and activities -- and make it easier to stay within your budget, especially if you're traveling with children. As the peak summer season cools off, beach resorts should get more generous with their perks.
21) Price it a la carte. To see if a package makes sense, research prices for all of the elements before you commit. For example, a cruise package typically charges per person for hotel rooms at the port of departure. See whether you would save by reserving a double-occupancy room outside of the package.
22) Defy hurricane season. Cruise lines offer the most enticing deals for travel from June 1 to November 30, which is hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean. Demand is low because of the risk of storm, but ships can circumvent the worst of the bad weather. If your cruise is canceled (which rarely happens), you'll receive a refund or credit toward a future cruise. Check out Cruise Critic's "Hurricane Zone," which provides storm updates and links to hurricane-season deals.
Warning: the cruise company won't reimburse you if rerouting delays force you to shell out for extra hotel nights or other itinerary changes. You may want cover your bases by booking travel insurance through a third-party provider, such as Travel Guard
23) Use a travel agent. Especially for first-timers, cruises can prove more complicated than your standard trip by air or land. A good cruise agent can help you avoid any costly booking snafus, as well as score you solid deals, cabin upgrades and other extras. At CruiseCompete.com, submit your cruise preferences, and the site will relay your request to more than 300 travel agents, who will then make you their best offers.
But beware of upselling: Agents typically receive a commission from the cruise line, so it's in their best interest if you book a cruise bundle that includes airfare and hotel. Think twice -- and check flights and hotels on your own -- before purchasing one.
24) For all-inclusive, go luxury. Cruise lines are starting to nickel-and-dime passengers. Expect to pay an extra $25 to $35 for the fanciest onboard restaurants and to pony up for other extras. Luxury liners tend to include amenities, such as shore excursions and gratuities, in their prices. A luxury line might even cover airfare -- often a good deal if you're considering a Mediterranean cruise. Plus, you'll typically have the run of a smaller ship, with a roomier cabin and more one-on-one service.
25) Book at the last minute. Cruise ships set sail as scheduled whether or not every cabin is occupied, so cruise lines often offer great last-minute deals to bring aboard as many paying guests as possible. Just don't expect the really cheap tickets to get you a stateroom with a view. You might also miss out on completely booked shore excursions.
26) Sail into big savings with a repositioning cruise. Ships need to take these one-way voyages in order to relocate for the season. For example, ships that cruise near Alaska in the summer head south once fall arrives. And cruise lines invite passengers aboard for the ride at deeply discounted rates. Look to CruiseCompete.com for current deals on repositioning cruises.