TRAVEL CENTER

Traveling Below Your Means

By Rick Aristotle Munarriz

Anyone who says you get what you pay for has probably never been on an airplane ride where just about everybody is paying a different fare, or in a hotel stocked with guests paying varying room rates. Or at least the person wasn't aware of it at the time.

It's just a fact of life. An empty seat on a plane -- like an empty room, or a car sitting on the rental lot unreserved -- is a wash. The travel industry isn't a Dutch auction in which folks bid until capacity is reached and then everyone pays the lowest winning offer. Rates will fluctuate, and there are often discounts that will vary from source to source.

How deep the savings go might very well depend on how many hoops you're willing to jump through -- and in some cases, you'll need to wear a blindfold for that jump.

Priceline and Hotwire

If you remember William Shatner singing the praises of Priceline.com and its "Name Your Own Price" mantra, then you may be familiar with the service. You pick where you want to fly, or the quality of the room in the city you're looking to stay in, and then you just bid on it.

Even though Priceline has gone on to carry conventional rates on disclosed flights and properties, you can still select the "Name Your Own Price" option and go retro in hopes of scoring some surplus inventory on the cheap.

You can't, however, just start your bidding at a buck and work your way up right away. A rejected offer means you will have to wait a few days before bidding again or change some aspect of your itinerary. You are also dealing with the biggest mystery of all: You won't know when you're flying or where you're staying until a winning bid is accepted.

Over at Hotwire, the site won't name names, but it will give you the actual discounted price for your selected days of travel. If you have to fly out at a specific time or want a specific lodging choice, forget about it. The marked-down yet veiled offerings at Priceline and Hotwire aren't for you. But if you're flexible enough in your plans, the savings should be a definite consideration.

You also have the benefit of the experience of those who have pulled on the curtain before you. On discussion board sites like BiddingForTravel.com and BetterBidding.com, your fellow online users who have landed successful transactions on Priceline and/or Hotwire come back to spill the beans on winning prices and identities. Still, even that is not an exact science, and more importantly, bookings made through the sites are not refundable.

Other thrifty resources

The same Internet that floored the travel industry with its ability to distribute planning information to every connected user has to cope with another Web-based reality: Discount codes carry. If you're planning a trip to Disney (NYSE: DIS) on either coast, MouseSavers.com is chock-full of the latest deals.

From area discounts to that great cruise deal, someone landing a travel bargain might relish the ability to go online to share how he or she got those savings. Sometimes, the bargains aren't even much of a secret -- they just need to be uncovered. If you know where you're going, hit Google to try to ferret out the city's official travel site. If you can't find a site set up by the city's convention and visitors bureau or even the chamber of commerce in some cases, you will be amazed at the quality of information available at some of the unofficial travel guides available. In some cases, they're ripe with online coupons.

If you're looking for a more permanent vacation spot -- either through a timeshare or a high-end destination club membership -- you don't have to pay retail in this case, either. There are hundreds of timeshare resale websites offering bargain-priced memberships. You even have a site like VRBO.com that offers vacation property rentals directly from the owners.

That last suggestion is worth elaborating on. You'll find more and more travel providers offering discounted rates and fares for folks who book directly through their sites. If you have a specific airline, hotel, or car rental company in mind, don't gloss over the option of booking directly -- either through the site or making a call -- if you can score a better price.    

One last penny-pinching resource is closer than you think. The Motley Fool's discussion boards have forums devoted to everything from Best Travel Spots/Tips to Cheap Air Fares to the more general yet wildly popular Living Below Your Means.

So you don't need to worry about cashing in your piggy bank on your next trip. The savings are there for the taking. What are you waiting for?

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz loves to travel, even if it's around the house. He does own shares of Disney. Rick's stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.

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