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Expert Answers To 10 Common Travel Questions

12/20/2012 07:39 am ET | Updated Feb 19, 2013

As SmarterTravel's media spokesperson, I get asked a lot of questions about travel. Should you wait to book? How do you spot a good deal? What's the best way to avoid bag fees? The good news is that I have answers. From pinpointing the best day of the week for booking airfare to selecting the best value destinations for a given season, here are my solutions to some of the most common travel concerns.

How Far in Advance Should You Book?

I might be a travel expert, but I'm no oracle. Truth be told, airfare prices -- which fluctuate constantly -- are impossible to predict. However, there are a few strategies that will guide you to finding a good deal and minimize your risk of overpaying. If your plans are firm -- meaning you have to travel on a certain date to a specific destination -- book one to two months out for domestic travel and two to three months out for international travel. Add an extra month for peak travel times like holidays or major events. Some destinations, such as Disney World during spring break or popular beach spots in August, require even more advanced planning, so do your homework.

If your plans are flexible -- meaning you're able totravel on multiple dates and/or have an open mind as to where you land -- you can hold out and find some of the best deals around. Like retailers, most airlines and hotels will slash prices at the last moment to sell off "distressed inventory" -- airplane seats or hotel rooms that aren't selling -- to avert a loss. Sign up for last-minute fare alerts directly with the airlines, and look out for flash sales from hotels.

What is the Best Day of the Week to Book Airfare?

Is there some magical day of the week to purchase airfare? Unlike the advanced-booking question, this one has a more definitive answer: Tuesday (and sometimes Wednesday). Most airlines release sales early in the week, often on Mondays, which leaves other airlines scrambling to match prices. By Tuesday afternoon, most competing airlines have engaged in an all-out fare war. These sales usually last through Thursday, but since they tend to have very limited availability, you want to check fares on Tuesday (early Wednesday at the latest), and book immediately.

SmarterTravel publishes deals every week, so monitor its website or sign up for its Deal Alert newsletter. Or check with the airlines directly, either online or via social media. On Twitter every Tuesday, for example, JetBlue releases its JetBlue Cheeps for last-minute travel.

How Can You Avoid Fees?

Yes, travel fees are pervasive and have wormed their way into every facet of travel, including flights, hotels, and rental cars. The good news is that many can be avoided. When it comes to flying, look for airlines that don't charge fees for common services like baggage: For example, Southwest allows two checked bags for free and JetBlue one; some airlines will waive bag fees for frequent flyers or members of its credit-card program (such as Delta's AmEx card). Ultimately, it pays to know what the fees are before booking so you can make an informed decision. SmarterTravel's downloadable chart is a good place to start.

Many hotel fees can be avoided if you simply say no to the services. In other words, don't touch the minibar or make in-room calls (buy your own snacks and use your cell phone instead). Other charges, such as resort fees, are trickier. It's best to find out about the charge in advance and book with another hotel, or ask the hotel manager to remove it -- he or she might say no, but it never hurts to ask. When renting a car, read the fine print. Look for easily avoidable fees like early-return and fuel charges. Also, most agents will pressure you into buying a Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), but you might already have collision coverage through your credit card. Always check with your credit-card company in advance.

What Are Your Rights When Your Flight is Delayed or Canceled?

When you find yourself faced with a flight delay or cancellation, know that your rights vary depending on whether the situation is the airline's fault (such as a mechanical delay) or due to some uncontrollable outside force (like a hurricane or nor'easter). Every airline's policy varies, but most state that for delays or cancellations within the airlines' control, passengers are entitled to be rebooked on the next available flight, possibly transferred to another carrier, or to receive a refund for the unused portion of the trip. Plus, some lines will provide meal vouchers, hotel stays, and ground transportation at their discretion. When the situation is beyond the airline's control, a refund is all that most airlines promise. However, for major storms, airlines have set a precedent to preemptively cancel flights in advance so you're not stranded at the airport, and they will allow you to rebook within a specific time frame without penalty.

For specifics of about these and other policies, download SmarterTravel's guide to airline contracts of carriage.

Should You Protect Your Vacation Investment?

To buy or not to buy: that is the question, when it comes to trip-cancellation insurance (TCI). It all depends on risk. In my experience, if you're taking a relatively short trip and haven't paid a fortune for it, you don't need it. Plus, most airlines -- and hotels for that matter -- will give you a refund or allow you to rebook when there's a widespread storm or incident. However, if you've made a considerable vacation investment and face a high risk of cancellation, such as traveling during hurricane season or if you have a potential medical condition, insurance could be a good idea. If you do opt for TCI, make sure you know what's included in your policy; most are very specific and won't allow coverage to kick in once a storm is predicted or if you have a preexisting medical condition. You can also buy a policy that will allow you to cancel for any reason, but they usually come with a higher premium.

How Do You Get the Best Deal?

There is one truth when it comes to travel, even in a bad economy: There will always be deals. While airfare prices continue to rise as airlines cut capacity and have to keep up with increasing fuel costs, consumers can still find ways to beat the system. The first thing I'd recommend is to sign up for fare alerts. Sites like Kayak, as well as some of the airlines, includingSouthwest, allow you to plug in fare details and receive messages telling you when the price drops. This saves you the pain of having to check every day. When you do see a good fare, always compare prices across multiple sources, including online travel agencies (OTAs), metasearch engines like Kayak and TripAdvisor Flights, and comparison tools like SmarterTravel's sister site BookingBuddy. Keep this in mind, though: The more flexible you are, the better the deals will be. Sites like Orbitz offer a matrix display that allows you to pinpoint the best fare in a given timeframe.

Another suggestion is to go against the grain. In other words, travel during the off-season; the prices will be lower and the crowds smaller. Also, head out midweek when most would-be leisure travelers are at work; the cheapest days to fly are usually Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Plus, many hotels, inns, and B&Bs will offer discounted midweek rates and packages.

How Do You Know When a Deal is Really a Deal?

Sadly, not all deals are created equal. And while some are bona fide, others are nothing more than gimmicks, if not downright scams. Your best defense is to take the time to fully research a deal before handing over your credit card number. First, make sure you're dealing with a reputable supplier, especially when it comes to tour operators and promoters. If you haven't heard of the company, check with the Better Business Bureau or United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) to make sure they are sound. Also, always compare prices across multiple suppliers. A deal might look good at first glance, but you may be able to beat the price elsewhere. When it comes to packages, always price out inclusions like gift baskets or spa services separately to determine whether it's cheaper to go a la carte. For example, many hotels offer individual room rates that are way cheaper than what you'd pay for the room plus the extras in a package. I always say that you can bring your own Champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries (likely higher-quality ones, too).

Lastly, always read the fine print. I know this sounds like wallpaper advice, but I can't stress how imperative it is. Look for things like blackout dates and other restrictions. You don't want to get a deal that you can't even use.

How Do You Score an Upgrade?

Everyone wants to vault to the front of the cabin or to that penthouse suite, but most of us feel that an upgrade is out reach. Not necessarily so. The best way to get upgraded is to join loyalty programs. While it's hard for many leisure travelers to accrue enough miles for a free first- or biz-class ticket, basic upgrades usually require fewer miles. For hotels and rental cars, points generally add up more quickly and you can get additional free perks just for being a member.

Alternatively for air travel, you can try bidding for upgrades or simply buying your way to more legroom and better service. While it will cost extra, it'll be much cheaper than purchasing a first- or business-class ticket. Also look for deals; some airlines will launch short-term sales on premium seats.

With hotels, arriving late in the day can increase your chances of a better room, since the hotel might have vacant rooms to fill (and can subsequently open up a cheaper room for another paying customer). Also, at check-in, mention if you are celebrating a special occasion like a honeymoon or an anniversary. At the rental-car desk, asking for an upgrade might work, but make sure you've weighed your options: A higher-class car could mean higher gas costs, which can quickly negate any benefit. In any situation, even with the airlines, it never hurts to ask; when you do, dress nicely, be specific with your request, and above all, be polite.

How do You Plan a Last-Minute Trip?

When you're ready to jet at the last second, time is of the essence. You won't have much of it to make plans, but it's certainly possible to pull together a quick trip. Look for last-minute fares, which many airlines release on Mondays and Tuesdays for the coming weekend. Also, consider booking an air-and-hotel package, which will save you time -- and money -- by consolidating your two big-ticket items into one transaction and itinerary. Most OTAs like Expedia or Travelocity will pair air and hotel options for you, allowing you to lock in a trip within minutes. Also, don't overlook the world of mobile apps. One of my favorites is HotelTonight, which releases available hotel rooms at a discount at noon the day of your stay.

What are the Best Travel Destinations?

This is always my favorite question. I love destinations as a topic and can talk about different places to go and things to do (and eat) for hours. Not coincidentally, these interviews always last the longest, in part because the question is so wide open and there's no single right answer. It really depends on factors like personal travel style and timing, and my response will always vary by season and year. But there are a few tricks to identifying a great hot spot.

If affordability is a priority, look for destinations with new air service or hotels; providers will often offer introductory rates at a discount and you can be among the first to check things out. Additionally, some U.S. cities and Caribbean islands offer destination-wide promotions during off-peak times. If you want to go where the excitement is, look for locales with big events, such as major sporting competitions, festivals, and museum openings. Check with the local tourism bureau to see what's on; you might even stumble upon corresponding deals and packages.

SmarterTravel publishes a list of top bargain destinations for every season, with the latest installment for winter 2012/2013 featuring Hawaii and Iceland.

-- By Anne Banas

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