Published: April 2009 The Tax Man Cometh
By Norie Quintos

Actually, that's good news. Most Americans get a refund. Here's what to do with it.

According to the IRS, the average tax refund last year was $2,733. Take even a portion of your refund this year and combine it with the unprecedented deals currently being offered by the travel industry, and you've got yourself the makings of a great summer vacation. Here are 15 strategies and deals to get you started. And see our Smart Traveler story in the current issue of the magazine (April 2009) for more ideas.

1. Cheap Eats

Take advantage of Restaurant Week discounts.

Examples:

New York City's 2009 Summer Restaurant Weeks goes from July 12 to July 31, 2009 and some restaurants are extending discounts through Labor Day.

San Francisco's Dine About Town program runs from June 1 to 15, 2009. Diners may select from over 100 participating restaurants offering prix-fixe lunches for $21.95 and dinners for $34.95, exclusive of tax and gratuity.

2. Free Night's Lodging

Numerous hotels are offering a free night's lodging when you pay for three, four, or five nights.

Examples:

Hotel des Artistes, a luxury beachfront condo hotel on Mexico's Pacific coast, is offering the Simply Summer package, from April 25 to November 14, 2009. Pay three nights in a deluxe oceanfront suite and get the 4th night free, which also includes a continental breakfast.

Omni Hotel's new "Spring Forward" package offers guests who book two nights their third night free at hotels, while guests who book three nights will receive their fourth night free at resorts. It's available through April 30, 2009. Prices start at $139 per night and vary depending on property and date.

3. Kids Stay Free

Many resorts worldwide don't charge extra for children staying in your room, and many include children's activities and amenities.

Examples:

Through the end of August 2009, St. Lucia's Windjammer Landing Villa Beach Resort offers a "Kids Stay, Play and Dine Free" promotion for children ages 10 and under. That's in addition to 25 percent off rates and $50 daily resort credits. For instance, if a family books a two-bedroom Hibiscus Suite, the new rate is $450 versus $600, and the family would receive $225 nightly room credit for activities and amenities on property and around the island.

Family-friendly Marival Resort & Suites in Mexico is offering the Free Kids package, from May 1st through June 30th, 2009. Kids under 12 can stay for free and families can take advantage of the property's recreational facilities including the four swimming pools, Kids Club, night-lit tennis courts, and gym and water sports center.

In Montego Bay, Jamaica, Half Moon's "Fall Break" package, valid from September 1-October 31, 2009, includes accommodations, unlimited use of tennis courts, gym, paddle boats, and kayaks. Children ages 3-12 sharing a room with two adults stay for free (maximum of two children per room). Rates start at $159 per night. The voucher code for Fall Break is HMFB09.

4. Big Deals on Guided Tour Packages

Guided tour operators are lowering prices and throwing in extras this year. See next month's "Tours of a Lifetime" special issue for more (May/June 2009).

Examples:

ROW Adventures has rolled back prices on its five-day Salmon River Canyons Family Magic adventures in Idaho. Rates are from $1,295 for adults and $995 for kids under 16. Rates include rafting gear, professional guides, and all meals and drinks on the river.

Odysseys Unlimited offers $300 off its 14-day "Moroccan Discovery" small-group tour departures in 2009, normally priced at $3,895 per person. A couple can save $600. The tour travels through four Imperial Cities—Rabat, Meknes, Fez, and Marrakech—to the mountains of the High Atlas and the vast Sahara. Domestic airfare, land transfers, and meals are included.

Friendly Planet Travel offers an eight-day, escorted, all-inclusive vacation to Ecuador, including airfare from Miami and superior hotel accommodations, for only $1,259. The "Exotic Ecuador" package is available from August 31 through September 21, 2009.

Travcoa is cutting the rates of its "Fabulous France" and "La Dolce Vita" escorted journeys by $900 and $800 per person, respectively, making even its most luxurious journeys a better value this year. The 13-day itinerary through France, now from $14,995 per person, departs June 4 and includes a hot-air balloon ride over Burgundy, chateau stays in the Lot and Loire valleys, wine tastings and a private, chauffeured ride through Paris in a vintage Citroen 2CV. The 14-day Italian journey, now from $16,495 per person, leaves June 1 and includes a cruise to Capri's Blue Grotto, a gondolier ride in Venice, a visit to the Roman ruins at Pompeii, and a private viewing of Ghirlandaio's fresco "The Last Supper."

5. Theme Park Savvy

Even theme parks are getting more aggressive with the promotions. Look for discounts, particularly in the spring and fall.

Examples:

SeaWorld Orlando offers guests who book three nights in any of nearly two dozen nearby hotels two extra nights free—plus unlimited admission for the week to SeaWorld and either its sister water park, Aquatica, or Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Packages start at $561 for a family of four, must be purchased by June 30 and are good for most days through September 7.

6. Lots of Extras

Hotels and travel companies may not want to lower their rack rates, but nevertheless effectively offer deals by throwing in extras.

Examples:

Travcoa is offering a complimentary three-night stay, worth $1,800 per couple, at the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town prior to the "Botswana's Wild Kingdom" journey.

Lake Tahoe's Resort at Squaw Creek has released a "Memorial Day Family Getaway" package for $179 per night, that includes nightly accommodations, breakfast for two adults and a daily resort credit of $25 per room valid in the spa, restaurants, at High Altitude Adventures, and property-owned retail outlets. In addition, during the package period, children ages 12-and-under eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner for free (one child per paying adult) from a special children's menu. The package is valid May 20-26, 2009. Use promo code MEMRSC.

Icelandair's Stimulus Package includes round-trip airfare from Boston, New York-JFK or Minneapolis/St. Paul, two nights lodging at either the Fosshotel Lind or Fosshotel Baron and Scandinavian breakfast each morning. You also receive a Stimulus Voucher good for special discounts on activities or meals. Rates start at $679 per person, double occupancy. Book by April 15.

7. Get on the Email List

If you have your eye on a particular hotel, cruise, or tour, get on the company's email list. You'll be among the first to learn about special promotions.

Start with National Geographic Traveler's own A*List newsletter.

8. Don't Wait to Renew Your Passport

Check the passport expiration dates of everyone in your family, and make a point to renew the passport at least eight months before the date. Many countries require that passports be valid six months after the departure date. A family of four renewing their passports will pay an additional $300 in fees if they have to expedite the process.

9. Bid for Travel

Hotels, cruise lines, car rental companies, and airlines don't always like to show how low they will go. So they hide their largest discounts in sites such as Hotwire.com and Priceline.com.

10. Solo Travel Discounts

Some companies are waiving the single supplement charged to solo travelers not sharing a double-occupancy room.

Example:

Breakaway Adventures is waiving the dreaded "single supplement," which is included by most tour companies, on its new walking and cycling trips to France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and other destinations for the remainder of 2009. Solo travelers can save between $36 and $92 per night and get their own rooms.

11. Destination Freebies

Check your destination's website during your travel planning. There usually great deals and coupons to be had. Also check out National Geographic Traveler's own Free Cities section for free things to do in 17 world cities.

Examples:

Headed to Alaska? This year marks the state's 50th anniversary and there are many deals, especially for those travelers also turning 50 this year.

Check out New York City's offers page on www.nycgo.com for the latest travel deals.

Check out Las Vegas deals and coupons on its official tourism website.

12. Rent a Villa

A rental villa, condo, or house has certain advantages over a hotel. First, it tends to be cheaper. And you can save on meals by making your own in the kitchen. Companies with properties around the world include www.vrbo.com, www.rentalo.com, www.homeaway.com, and www.athomeabroadinc.com.

13. Swap Homes

Try house swapping and save big. Check out websites such as www.homeexchange.com, homelink.org, www.intervac, and www.digsville.com.

14. Negotiate Directly

This is the year to haggle. Especially with owner-operated hotels and travel companies, try negotiating rates down. "We know that people expect a deal right now and we are giving it to them," says Kent Redding of Africa Adventure Consultants. The safari expert is offering a six-night trip to Botswana in November for $2,247 per person.

15. Airfare Deals

Airfares have dipped as the economy has worsened. Get information on the latest airfare sales at www.airfarewatchdog.com, www.kayak.com, www.vayama.com, or yapta.com.