Fiscal Fitness '09: Save $240 on Your Next Vacation

Today's tip is part of our Fiscal Fitness '09 series. Every weekday this month, you'll get help getting fiscally fit as we work toward our goal of saving $2,000 to invest in 3 stocks!

A survey a few years ago found that about 40% of vacationers financed their travel plans with plastic -- and more than half didn't pay off the tab right away.

We don't want you to stay at home and mope, but if you can't afford to pay cash for that cruise/camping trip/Civil War reenactment outing, ask yourself if you're willing to pay double for it. Because that's what it'll cost if you pay just the minimum amount due on your credit card.

Given that travel is one of the biggest budget line items for many folks, shopping around for savings is worth the time. With the average family spending more than $1,600 for their summer vacation, according to a survey by Visa, trimming costs by just 15% amounts to $240 in savings -- and that's just for the summer trip.

Below are some general tips on booking the lowest cost air fare. We've hit the high points, but for much more nuanced advice check out the Fool's Best Travel Spots/Tips board for tips from seasoned travelers and sightseeing advice from locals.

How to score cheap airfare
Everyone knows that advance planning is everything when it comes to travel. Nowhere is the savings more significant than when shopping for airfare. The bonus to arranging your getaway now is that you can solidify your plans before all the aisle seats are taken (and have something to motivate the kids to do their chores). Here are some websites that will help you get there -- wherever that may be -- for less:

Track fares for a while. Many websites will keep an eye on airfare costs and alert you to the best deals based on your travel criteria. Check out Farecast.com for guidance on when to buy; cFares.com to search airlines, travel wholesalers, and agencies (for a membership fee, it also offers a name-your-price feature); and Airfarewatchdog.com for cheap flights before they hit the major travel portals.

Do comparison-shopping diligence. Make sure a deal is really all that by comparing your quotes with those offered directly by the airline. In addition to the biggie travel sites like Expedia (Nasdaq: EXPE  ) and Orbitz (NYSE: OWW  ) , there's a plentiful list of aggregators to choose from like Travelocity.com, Hotels.com, and Travelzoo, which delivers its deals through its website and its Top 20 email. Other aggregator sites include Yahoo!'s (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) FareChase, Kayak.com, Sidestep.com, Yapta.com, 1800FlyEurope.com, and I'mWillingToRideInCargo.com (kidding on that last one). You might encounter some fares that require you to pick up the phone and contact the agent directly. Do it -- that's how I got a direct flight to Paris for half of what it cost on another website. Also, there's always Priceline (Nasdaq: PCLN  ) and its name-your-own-price policy. When browsing, keep in mind that some airlines, like Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV  ) , might not even offer their listings through larger aggregator sites. And once you've selected a flight from an airline, double-check at the airline's own website to see if you can avoid booking fees or can score a lower price on the same flight.

Pay with points. Planners -- those who book their travel months in advance -- will get the most out of their points and frequent-flier miles. These days the restrictions on rewards redemption are plentiful. (Check out mouseprint.org to see how the fine print might affect your travel and InsideFlyer.com for the most recent news about rewards travel.) A good rule of thumb is to pay cash for tickets that cost $250 or less instead of wasting points (unless they are due to expire). You may save more by using your points to pay for a hotel room. And if you're just short of qualifying for a freebie, check out Points.com to see whether you can swap or augment your rewards kitty. Airline loyalty programs don't always count by the mile. For example, JetBlue (Nasdaq: JBLU  ) offers its TrueBlue program, where 100 accumulated points equal a free round-trip flight, while Southwest's Rapid Rewards program serves up a free flight after eight flights within a 24-month period. Be sure to find the best program to suit your travel preferences and habits.

Wing it with a last-minute deal. Hotels and airlines hate empty rooms and seats. When it gets down to the wire, they'll settle for a song. But you have to act quickly: The deals are limited and they can go fast. Sign up for weekly email alerts with a few different travel websites. If you're already packed, lastminute.com searches for deals on airfare, car rentals, and hotel rooms that can be booked as little as three hours before takeoff.

Check out my hometown. You might have your eye on Hawaii, but unless you're prepared to pay more than $673 per day for a family of four, according to AAA, it may not be in the cards. While my hometown of Lawrence, Kan., may not be as brag-worthy, at less than $200 a day for a family of four, it still beats the high cost of cities like New York (around $606) or Miami Beach ($370).

More ways to save ...

  • Use this travel pro's tricks for getting the most from your frequent-flier miles: According to Consumer Reports, 75% of airline miles go unused each year. It's no wonder, given the plentiful and ever-changing rewards-card restrictions. Read "Rack Up the Rewards" for seven tips on getting the most from your miles from a fellow Fool and loyalty travel guru.
  • Try the bus!: Greyhound isn't the only service out there. Here on the East Coast there are "commuter buses" that run from D.C. to New York and beyond for ridiculously cheap fare. (We found one special for $5 each way!) Some buses are even equipped with free Wi-Fi so you can kill time on the road.
  • Hit your wholesale club for cheap tickets: Many Costco (Nasdaq: COST  ) and Sam's Club locations have travel departments where you can score a good deal from time to time.
  • Some quality assurance for the bargain hunter: If you're hunting for bargains and aren't sure of the hotel, check in with TripAdvisor. You'll get the scoop about important things to consider like location, cleanliness, and safety. Likewise, SeatGuru.com offers additional information about airlines and specific flights.

Read the latest from Fiscal Fitness '09: 1 Month, 2 Grand, 3 Stocks to get our other money-saving tips. You can also keep up with our tips through our daily Foolwatch email. Share your frugal insights and experiences through our Fiscal Fitness '09 discussion board, or leave a comment below.

Fiscal Fitness boot camp instructor Dayana Yochim owns none of the companies mentioned in this article. Costco and Priceline.com are Stock Advisor recommendations, while Costco is also an Inside Value recommendation. The Fool has a disclosure policy that's daydreaming about long walks on the beach ... oh wait, wrong website.


Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (5)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2009, at 9:29 AM, loyaltymatch wrote:

    Another opportunity is to use LoyaltyMatch.com to generate extra cash from your unused loyalty and frequent flier points and miles.

  • Report this Comment On February 01, 2009, at 6:53 PM, GreenEyedLady wrote:

    There is a gotcha to buying airline miles through Points.com that you should be aware of. The airline websites say that prices are in USD, and the airlines are US companies, and purchases are made in the US but since Points.com is a Canadian company (which none of the websites involved in the transaction will tell you beforehand) you WILL pay a currency conversion fee to use their service regardless!!! There is NO warning about any of this and the price you pay will NOT be the what the website tells you at time of purchase, and you will not find out until you see your charge card bill!

  • Report this Comment On March 18, 2009, at 10:23 PM, GreenEyedLady wrote:

    Okay, some time has gone by. I had emailed Customer Service of the airline I bought miles for and gotten a generic "that's the way it is" response on 30 Jan 2009. Then on 27 Feb 2009 I got the following email:

    ----------------------------------

    Dear Valued SkyMiles® Member,

    Our records indicate that, due to a credit card processing error, you may have been incorrectly charged an International Service Fee or Foreign Transaction Fee for your recent purchase or transfer of SkyMiles. This error affected transactions that occurred between December 9th, 2008 and February 2, 2009. We would like to inform you that this issue has been resolved. We will be processing a refund for this fee to your credit card in the next 2 weeks. The refund will be visible on your next monthly credit card statement.

    We apologize for any inconvenience this error may have caused.

    ----------------------------------

    and now my latest credit card statement shows the refund. So hopefully nobody else will get snagged on this now?

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