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Cheap Travel Cheat Sheet

Vacations are all about priceless memories of water slides, wide smiles, inside jokes the kids will tell for years to come and -- cue needle screeching across the record album -- dropping a few c-notes a day.

That buzzkill statistic comes from AAA's annual vacation survey, which revealed that, last year, the average family of four shelled out $261 a day -- $120 for food and $141 for lodging -- for their R&R. That's $1,827 for seven days away from the daily grind, not counting travel tchotchkes and pit stops for stomach remedies. No soft-focus lens can soften the blow of that bill.

Have plastic, will travel
The cost of travel makes it worthy of its own budget line item. So treat it like one by formalizing your savings goal. For example, if you plan to go away in August, start socking away $456.75 a month (to reach the $1,827 total mentioned above).

Unless you want your credit card statement holding a place of prominence in your photo album, the best way to pay for R&R is to plan ahead and pay cash. However, that's not the M.O. for most travelers.

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 re-enactment 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.

Don't forget to include the cost of activities and extras like doodads to placate the kids and chocolates for your pals back at the office. Travel pros recommend padding your budget by 10% to 15% to avoid sticker shock.

Vacation planning = budget travel
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).

In the April issue of Motley Fool Green Light I wrote a playbook for tackling the biggest vacation expenses -- airfare, rooms and rental rides -- as well as advice on trip insurance and managing your cash when you're on the road. (You can access these articles and the entire archive of money-making and money-saving tips free for 30 days.) Below is a get-started guide to help you find cheap flights.

How to score cheap flights
Would that there was a time travel machine. If you could transport back to the year 1950, you'd be able to treat your family of four to a whiz-bang getaway for just $13 a day (and maybe even witness the birth of Rock and Roll). Until that technology is worked out, you'll have to make do with contemporary tools. Fortunately, there are plenty to make cost cutting easier.

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.com, Travelocity.com, and Hotels.com, lesser-known aggregators like the Travelzoo (Nasdaq: TZOO  ) website can provide extra savings. Others include Kayak.com, Sidestep.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.

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.

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, Site59.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 $559 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 $193 a day for a family of four, it still beats the high cost of cities like D.C. ($518) and New York ($329).

Cut travel costs even more
If your dream getaway is still out of reach, don't throw that bottle of SPF 50 in the trash can just yet. Check out the additional cheap travel resources in the April issue of Motley Fool Green Light. (I'm currently working on a playbook for making the most of your rewards points, miles, and freebies for next month's issue.) This month's edition also features bargain-basement stocks (served up by my co-advisor extraordinaire, Shannon Zimmerman), a detailed agenda of assessing your current cash-flow, short-term savings and long-term investment picture and more. All told, we unearthed $1,174 worth of tips that you can pocket with our easy-to-follow instructions. That kind of cash will certainly emphasize the "bon" in "bon voyage," n'est-ce pas?

More travel tips from my fellow Fools:

Dayana Yochim's top tip for overcoming language barriers while traveling overseas is to pretend that she's being paid a compliment. "Oh, this old thing? It's just from the Gap! But thank you! It IS a great color, no?" She is the co-advisor for theMotley Fool Green Light service, which offers everyday money and investing advice in a language everyone can understand. Priceline is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor find. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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