And when demand increases, so do prices, as well as competition for the best destinations and hotels. Most travel industry analysts predict summer prices to rise in the 4 - 6 percent range across all sectors; save for gasoline prices, as I will explain below, there will be almost nowhere to hide from creeping travel prices this summer. To help you find places to shelter your wallet once temps start to rise, here are two tips to save on each segment of your trip this summer.
The airlines have been raising prices at regular intervals for the past year or more -- not to mention piling on fees -- but there has been very little resulting drop in demand, which will only inspire more fare increases. The increases will only stop coming when demand stalls, and the summer travel surge will put that off for a while yet.
That said, here are a couple ways to save this summer on air travel:
Tip 1: Look now for travel in late summer. Late spring bookings tend to focus on early summer and especially the period immediately after school gets out, and prices reflect the demand. However, not everyone has a handle on their late summer plans just yet, and you can still find some late summer deals now -- or at least some reasonable prices.
Tip 2: Try alternate airports. Demand has been steady at bigger gateways, but some less known and less popular routes can surrender deals this summer (at least until airline mergers shut them down). Most very large cities have an alternate airport -- Los Angeles has Long Beach, New York has three airports, D.C. has a few, Chicago has Midway -- you get the picture. Cast your airfare net wide.
10 Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare
Hotel prices are up a bit just now, but again, that is due in part to the annual rush to book family trips as the end of school nears. Historically, most summer bookings take place in late spring and early summer, even for travel later in the season -- which means that prices are highest now when people are buying aggressively.
Tip 1: Wait. Unless you are going to a very popular destination or a place with a dearth of hotel options, or you have very specific location requirements (oceanfront, a convention hotel, etc.), waiting until mid to late summer to book your hotel may pay off very well. As the pace of booking slows down, and properties start to worry about unsold inventory, prices will drop a bit. If you have the courage and flexibility to wait until almost the last minute, you might be able to get really great deals.
Tip 2: Use hotel Web site calendar features. Many hotel booking sites show the price by date on a calendar, enabling you to see how rates vary from day to day. Glancing at these can tell you quite a bit about that hotel's pricing trends and practices, which days of the month cost the most and least, and when rooms are more or less abundant. In resort towns, for example, prices can be higher by 200 - 500 percent on weekends, and truly bottom out midweek.
Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay
While it seems like there is plenty of competition along the bank of car rental counters at the airport, in truth 94 percent of available cars are owned by three companies -- Avis, Hertz and Enterprise.
That said, of the three, only Enterprise is not traded publicly, and while car rental prices have been rising gradually of late, the company has made rumblings about competing more on price this summer -- which is already producing some bargains. Add to this that, at least in my experience as well as that of a number of my high-mileage friends, the Name Your Price option on Priceline has been spitting out great deals on cars lately, and you have a tactic that can work all summer long.
Tip 1: Name your price. Shop around on some third-party sites (Kayak, Hotwire, etc.), then hit Priceline with a Name Your Price bid. I just did this for a late June trip and got a car for $15/day; not bad, especially on a day when the quoted prices were in the $25 - $40 range. I recommend you try a first bid in the teens and see how you do.
Tip 2: Rent for the week. If you are renting a car for more than three or four days, first check the weekly rental rate, as these are often discounted very aggressively, and renting for a week and returning the car a couple of days early can often save you a heap of money. (Beware, though, as some companies may charge early return fees or change your rate structure; call ahead to ask what will happen if you turn the car in earlier than expected.) Weekly rentals also sometimes feature very different pricing for the better classes of rental, so you could get a better ride for a better price -- go figure.
The First 10 Minutes of Your Car Rental
Toll Roads and Bridges
One very new trend in road trip travel is the savings (sometimes of money, sometimes time, sometimes both) to be found in prepaid road and bridge tolls, which are typically available through a program such as E-ZPass or FasTrak. As I mentioned recently in Unexpected Fees: The True Cost of Travel, E-Zpass customers pay $8 less when driving across the length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike ($31 vs. $39).
One of the problems with these programs is that they tend to be local in range, or regional at best, so you would need to be a member of a different program almost everywhere you go. This is getting a little easier than it used to be; FasTrak tags can be purchased prepaid at Costco, Safeway and Walgreen stores.
You can also apply for some of these programs online, especially if you are just interested in saving time -- some toll programs allow you to link your credit card to your license plate number so you can use the automated lanes without having to go purchase a tag, attach it to the window, return it, etc. This can be very useful when traveling to destinations with notorious traffic congestion. Leonard Patrick, a retired police officer from Smithville, NJ, once used this on a West Coast trip to great effect: "I estimate I saved over an hour in long toll lines over a long weekend in and around San Francisco," he said.
Tip 1: Pre-map your trips along your major routes, then search the Web for information about tolls. Most major toll highways have some sort of Internet presence these days, and most outline their toll prices and programs very clearly.
Tip 2: Use one of the mapping sites and select "Avoid highways" or "Avoid tolls"; I call this the Blue Highways option.
Photos: The Eight Best U.S. Road Trips
One Bright Spot: Gasoline Prices
The price of gas may turn out to be a bright spot for travelers this summer, as they'll be down slightly from last year, and no summertime spikes are expected (barring political or weather events that could disrupt supply lines). As a result, more travelers may hit the road instead of flying.
Energy department analysts expect the cost of gasoline to float down to around $3.50 per gallon this summer, down 13 cents from the same time last year. Still, you will want to find the best prices, wherever you are. Try these tips:
Tip 1: Use a Web site or app like Gas Buddy to find the best prices in your area. (For more ideas, see Save Gas and Money.)
Tip 2: Don't fill up on weekends. Reports from experts vary on which days of the week are the cheapest to buy gas; some say Monday or Tuesday, while others say Wednesday. But pundits generally agree that prices start to go up by the end of the week to take advantage of weekend travelers -- so you may want to avoid filling up between Thursday and Sunday.
If you are one of those travelers who has had enough of staycations and cooped-up summers, hopefully these tips will help you save some cash when you ignore the economic forecasts and turn your attention to the weather forecasts at your favorite destination.
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