Don't get caught in a tourist money trap. Learn how to save big with our savvy strategies, from avoiding hidden charges to cashing in on off-season deals, and finding the best bargains on hotel rooms, vacation packages, flights, and more.
1. Travel during the off-season. Examples: Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon are most expensive in summer, the same season when tour operators and hotels in the Caribbean and Mexico slash rates. Caribbean cruises are less expensive when you go in the fall versus winter or spring—though you'll want to avoid isles in the so-called "Hurricane Alley." Hotels in Hawaii offer 10 to 20 percent off room rates from mid-September to mid-December; and Europe's best deals are offered between Thanksgiving and Easter.
2. Plan ahead. Discounted vacation packages for travel during Thanksgiving and Christmas are offered as early as August. Book your winter cruise a year in advance for early-bird discounts, and take advantage of rail fare reductions just after the holidays. From August through October, ski resorts post deals for the upcoming winter season.
3. Buy a vacation package. When planning a vacation with multiple components—airfare, accommodations, a rental car—a package can save you up to 30 percent versus purchasing each part of your trip separately.
4. Don't wait until the last minute to get—or renew—your passport; the longer you wait, the more it will cost. Routine applications generally take up to six weeks to process for a fee of $75 (renewal) or $100 (first-time); both fees include passport, security, and execution fees. A two-week turnaround will cost an extra $60, plus two-way overnight delivery costs. Get more information from the U.S. State Department.
5. Purchase travel insurance from a third party for better coverage and/or a lower rate. Check into MedJet Assist, which offers medical evacuation services if you're hospitalized more than 150 miles from your home. A one-year membership for a single person cost $225, and family memberships cost $350—spare change when you consider that being airlifted, especially from a remote location, can cost you tens of thousands of dollars.
6. Become a member of AAA. Depending on your destination and itinerary, AAA can earn you deep discounts on hotel rooms, cruises, tours, and more. Amtrak, for example, offers 10 percent off train tickets for members, while Hertz offers 10-20 percent off rental cars. Basic primary memberships cost about $61 a year, but the savings will pay off.
7. Let the deals come to you. Subscribe to free e-mail newsletters to save time and money on airfare, hotel rooms, vacation packages, and more. Two good bets: Traveler's biweekly A*List deals newsletter , which also offers discounts on guidebooks and a free map, and SmarterTravel.com, which creates money-saving newsletters tailored to students, families, and senior citizens. The free Travelzoo Top 20 is a great general resource for weekly travel deals.
8. When booking a multi-leg flight turn to a website with ITA Software. This simple-to-use technology allows you to search for airfare then e-mail an agent to see if a lower price can be found elsewhere. Sites such as Orbitz and CheapTickets.com use this software.
9. Keep your honeymoon and other special occasions under wraps, at first. Some companies will try to charge you more, reasoning that you'll want to splurge on this special getaway. Once your reservations are finalized, share the reason for your trip: You might get complimentary champagne or a free upgrade at your hotel.
10. Trash your "cookies," small files stored in your Internet browser that record the websites you surf—and the transactions you make. Say you go online and purchase a plane ticket from Chicago to Omaha. The next time you visit that site, you could be quoted a higher rate than what's actually available because of your spending history. Avoid this problem by deleting these files before each new search; it usually means clicking on the "Tools" tab and selecting "Clear private data." Detailed instructions for your specific browser can be found under the "Help" option in the browser menu.
11. Buy any electronics you might need before you depart—this includes small items like converters, headphones, and cords. They can be difficult to find while traveling, and when they're in plain sight they're usually exorbitantly overpriced. A single, all-in-one travel converter is a great buy, since it's relatively inexpensive, reusable for multiple trips, and can save hours of frustration in pricey electronics stores abroad.
12. Packing well can save you from buying a $60 sweater just like the one you have at home (only more expensive). Pack layers and pack light, but always bring at least one warm item. Especially with summer air conditioning in places like Australia, you might find yourself wearing that hooded sweatshirt more than you expected.