The last few years have been tough economically for many people. Unemployment fears combined with plunging home, stock and retirement account values caused many to forgo big vacations -- even though stressful times are when we most need to recharge our batteries.
But with the economy turning around, many families are cautiously dipping their toes in the travel pool once again. Hotel occupancy rates have risen in many areas and airports are as crowded as ever.
Here are a few budgeting tips if you're planning a trip that involves flying and a hotel stay:
Be flexible. During "shoulder seasons" (from Easter to summer and Labor Day through Thanksgiving), flights, hotels, rental cars and tourist attractions are often much cheaper than during peak seasons.Saturday and midweek flights are often cheaper than the days when most business travelers fly. Conversely, hotels in major cities are usually cheaper on weekends, when business travelers have returned home -- although locations that cater to leisure travelers are usually less expensive during the week. Avoid hidden fees. Airlines and hotels are notorious for tacking extra charges onto their bills. Watch out for:
- A few airlines allow one free checked bag (Southwest still allows two), but most charge up to $25 for the first checked bag each way, and even more for additional pieces. Plus, most now tack on hefty fees for overweight and over-sized checked and carry-on luggage, so measure and weigh your luggage carefully.
- Also expect to pay extra for things like changing flights, extra leg room, priority boarding, unaccompanied minors, pets, Wi-Fi access and food. Some airlines even charge extra to speak to a live person or to buy your ticket at the airport counter or by phone.
- Airfarewatchdog.com, Travelnerd.com and Kayak offer great fee comparison charts for various airlines; but always double-check the airline's own posted rules before booking your flight.
- Some hotels charge extra if you check in before a certain time. If yours does, ask whether they'll store your luggage for free until check-in so you can begin sightseeing unencumbered.
- Many hotels charge a hefty penalty if you don't cancel a reservation 24 to 72 hours beforehand and some also charge an early-departure fee, which is sometimes the equivalent of one night's lodging. Read the hotel's cancellation policy before booking, especially if you're looking at a discounted, non-refundable rate.
- Room rates are usually based on double occupancy. Although kids can usually stay free, many hotels charge extra for additional adults.
- Minibars often have electronic sensors that trigger a charge if you simply move the contents. Also, water or snacks sitting on the dresser may appear to be complimentary, but double-check before consuming.
- Hotel parking in major cities can cost up to $50 a day, and many have mandatory valet parking, which means adding a tip on top of that. Research nearby municipal parking lots beforehand, or check the city's tourism bureau for hotels offering parking promotions. Sometimes using public transportation and taxis is cheaper overall than paying for parking.
- Some hotels and resorts automatically add housekeeping or spa gratuities to your bill, so ask first before leaving your own tip -- unless of course the service was terrific.
- Most hotels charge exorbitant amounts for local and long-distance calls made from room phones, so use your cellphone.
- Resorts often charge extra for services they offer -- such as gym access or daily newspaper delivery -- even if you don't use them. Find out the policy ahead of time and scrutinize your bill for unused services.
- Ask to see your bill the night before you check out, so you can review it carefully for overcharges.
- If you're traveling abroad, be aware that using your cellphone can be mighty expensive. Research your carrier's international calling plan and ask whether your phone is compatible with foreign networks. You may need to rent an international cellphone, or buy or rent an unlocked phone and international SIM card at sites like Telestial.com or CellularAbroad.com.
- See my previous blog, Avoid Rude Rental Car Surprises, for tips on saving money on rental cars.
Comparison shop. An ever-growing number of sites allow you to search for and compare deals on flights, hotels and rental cars, including Airfarewatchdog.com, Hotels.com, Hotwire, Lastminute.com, Kayak, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelzoo. Always compare prices to those listed on the airline, hotel and rental car agency's own sites to make sure they aren't offering a better deal.
And most importantly, before clicking "confirm," make sure the final price matches the initial quote. I've seen fares jump $50 or more in just minutes or had the seat I was booking suddenly become unavailable.
If your budget's in good shape and you're getting wanderlust, maybe it's time to venture out into the world again. Just be cautious about how hidden expenses can add up.
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.