With spring break just around the corner, many of us are itching to escape the winter doldrums. But with the mid-semester recess inspiring swarms of students to swap textbooks for beach chairs and families to trade weekend jaunts for extended trips, it seems the window to score an attractive deal is quickly closing. Plus, there's another hurdle for procrastinators this year: Easter falls at the end of March, prompting more people than usual to travel during this busy shoulder season.
Never fear: There's still time to squeeze in an affordable last-minute retreat. Whether you're looking for an isolated beach resort or a bustling city, there are still plenty of places where your wallet can balance your wanderlust. With some help from Clem Bason, president of the Hotwire Group, and Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com, U.S. News Travel has identified some clever ways to save big on spur-of-the-moment spring travel.
[In Pictures: 8 Affordable Spring Break Getaways]
Tip 1. Keep Your Dates Flexible
It probably comes as no surprise that the more flexible you are in your travel plans, the better your chances are of nabbing reduced airfares. According to Klee, bargain-hunters should look for flights that depart before or after the weekend rush. Consider traveling on a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday; taking off on these days will yield better odds of scoring discounted fares, which can "make a huge difference" in overall vacation costs, says Klee. Bason also warns budget-minded travelers to be wary of holiday season price hikes. Because Easter overlaps with spring break season this year, the price for a plane seat is likelier to be more expensive than usual. To maximize savings, Bason suggests planning your vacation so that it doesn't coincide with the holiday.
Tip 2. Set Your Sights on the City
While throngs of college students migrate to the pearly white sands of Cancún and Miami Beach, urban retreats have a lower springtime demand and often yield excellent airfare and hotel deals. "The big cities tend to be more immune to the spike hike," explained Klee. In fact, according to Travelzoo, popular cities like New York City and Chicago are seeing hotel and airfare discounts of up to 40 to 50 percent compared to other times of the year. If you're looking for a vibrant city retreat without extravagant price tags, consider traveling to the Windy City; Hotwire.com experts report that average Chicago hotel rate between March 22 and March 31 has dropped 28 percent compared to 2012. Other metro areas like Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Toronto also boast reduced room rates.
[See: Best Spring Vacations]
Tip 3. Search Alternative Airports
An easy way to reduce the exorbitant cost of flying is expanding your flight search to alternative hubs. Departing from a secondary airport can tender drastically discounted fares. Both Klee and Bason recommend considering all airports within a reasonable distance of your intended arrival and departure destinations. And though he points out that flight costs will vary significantly depending on your desired destination, Bason insists that it's best to conduct separate searches for more than one combination of airports: "[You] never know what combination of airport or weekday is going to get you the very best deal." Just be sure that you're ready to book when the perfect price comes along. "Don't assume that you could go home, talk about it with your family and go back the next day and buy it," Klee advised.
Tip 4. Hop across the pond
As winter-weary travelers start to thaw from a long and dreary winter, thoughts shift to Europe. And, rightfully so: While you'll likely run into crowds, you can expect to find plenty of affordable hotel rooms (not to mention blossoming spring flowers). "If you have a full week off, it's definitely worth a look," said Klee, noting that airfares from the U.S. to Europe are around 30- to 40-percent cheaper than they are in the summer. Last-minute airfare deals to tourist hot spots like Paris, Madrid, and Amsterdam abound in March and April. And according to Bason, deals on luxury hotels are easy to find, too. "Europe is in the middle of a recession right now, and it's not their high season yet," noted Bason. It may be a trek to get there, but Bason insists that shoulder-season prices are low enough for you to enjoy four- or five-star accommodations every night. For particularly excellent lodging deals, turn your attention to destinations like London, Berlin, and Istanbul.
Tip 5. Stay Connected
Nowadays, savvy travelers have access to a handful of resourceful smartphone apps that allow vacation-seekers to track and book flights and hotel rooms while on the go. Bason recommends using apps like Expedia.com's ASAP (A Sudden Amazing Price) and Hotwire.com's free planning tools, which allow you to do everything from tracking lowest airfares to monitoring specific destinations for price drops. That way, you'll never miss a price drop or a flash sale. Another website Bason has on his radar: Red Week, a marketplace for travelers looking to rent their timeshares. Owners will often lower rates significantly on their timeshares as the deadline to rent approaches, explains Bason. And though you'll have to track the deals yourself, "the savings are out of this world." Another excellent (and free) app worth checking out for those most interested in scoring discounted airfares is OnTheFly by ITA Software, which pinpoints the best flight available by cross-checking dates, airlines, arrival and departure destinations, and prices.
Tip 6. Trade Sun for Snow
Those who swap a dreamy beach resort for a cozy ski retreat can save big on springtime travel. Bason recommends checking out cities like Denver, Salt Lake City, and Vancouver, which lure procrastinating powder hounds with end-of-season mark-downs. If fresh powder still blankets the slopes, you can spend your days tackling the snow-capped mountains. If the snowfall is limited, you can carve out some time for meandering through Denver, Salt Lake City, and Vancouver's ambient downtown areas--all of which boast a bevy of museums, restaurants, and shops. But the west isn't the only place to score a deal. According to Travelzoo, you can also save up to 50 percent on Vermont hotels over this popular spring travel period.
[In Pictures: 8 Affordable Spring Break Getaways]