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7 Ways to Travel Smarter, Cheaper and More Often

There are plenty of deals and discounts out there — if you know where to find them

By Stephanie Oswald | October 3, 2013

Fall travel season is here, offering endless possibilities for your next trip. One fringe benefit of not having to work around school schedules is getting to hit the road on less crowded highways — and in airports, on planes and at attractions.
 
Of course, having plenty of time on your hands is only part of what it takes to get away. Assuming you’re fit for the kind of travel you desire, the other big challenge is paying for it. For people who’ve downshifted at work or are putting kids through college, money can be tight. But there are a number of simple ways to make sure you’re stretching those travel dollars as far as possible.
 
(MORE: The Hottest Trends in Boomer Travel)

Funding Your Bucket List Travel
 
Here are seven tips for helping your wallet keep pace with your wanderlust.
 
1. Know where the bargains are. You probably know some ways to watch for deals on airfare and hotels. Make sure you’re also on every possible list for printable coupons and discount codes by signing up for alerts from all your preferred airlines, hotels and rental car agencies and following them on Facebook and Twitter. Always update them when your home or email address changes. If you bid for deals on Priceline, give yourself a competitive edge by consulting BiddingforTravel or BetterBidding to find the lowest acceptable bids.
 
Another place to find great deals is through online “warehouses,” like Groupon Getaways, TravelZoo and Living Social Escapes. Just be sure to read the fine print, as these bargains often involve specific timing, usually don’t allow for changes and must be purchased during a small time window.
 
(MORE: 6 Money-Saving Travel Secrets)
 
2. Be devilish. Apply that familiar expression “the devil is in the details” to your travel planning. Even as you’re hunting for big savings, don’t overlook the incidentals. They can add up to a lot of money at the end of a trip, especially an extended one. Choose hotels that include gratis such costly extras as breakfast, parking and Wi-Fi. Don’t assume that the fitness or business center is free of charge and ask what’s included in the resort fee, if you’re paying one. Sometimes you can get these perks simply by joining a loyalty program when you check in. 
 
3. Exploit your flexibility. Chris McGinnis, editor at Best Western’s Youmustbetrippin.com, has been tracking travel trends for more than two decades. He says the ability to be adaptable is a boomer’s great strength when it comes to beating high prices. If your travel plans include perennially pricey destinations, try to go during slow periods, he says. “Take cruises in the fall or head to bucket list destinations like Disney, Prague or Tahiti during the ‘dead weeks’ just before and just after the Christmas and New Years’ rush.”
 
The ultimate in flexibility is being able to wait for last-minute deals. Apps, like Hotel Tonight (big savings after 12 p.m. on the day of stay), Jetsetter (flash sales for discounts up to 60 percent on vacation packages or hotels) and Last Minute Hotels (a Travelocity-linked app that offers discount bookings up to 48 hours in advance), are great ways to jump on budget-friendly prices. Websites like Hipmunk (mostly airline tickets, but also hotels) and RouteHappy (a flight database that assigns value to seats, amenities and flyer ratings) track the lowest rates and the highest level of “travel happiness.”
 
4. Think outside the box. Nine times out of 10, the downtown or center-city hotel rate is far more expensive than accommodations in outer districts or even suburbia. If you’re planning to be out and about most of the day, skimp a bit on the room to free up more money for fun. McGinnis advises finding a suburban hotel near a subway or bus stop. Even with transit back and forth, you could wind up saving hundreds of dollars.
 
If you’re traveling on a weekend, find a business hotel that’s hungry to fill beds — you’re likely to get an even more attractive rate. Make TripAdvisor your go-to source for user reviews that can provide a reality check.
 
5. Follow the pros. Popular travel blogger Johnny Jet is away from home more than 200 nights a year. He says one of the best ways for “civilians” to save money on travel is by monitoring experts such as himself. “Sign up for our mailing lists and newsletters and follow us on Twitter and Facebook,” he says. That way you’ll be among the first to know when a special deal or rate is offered. Consumer expert Clark Howard is another super travel sleuth, as is Christopher Elliott.
 
6. Stay open-minded. As Jet points out, too often we consider only mainstream travel options, like hotels, motels, rental cars and cabs. Yet there’s an endless list of options for home-swapping, couchsurfing or simply renting a home directly from its owner. Check out VRBO, one of the most popular such websites, and Airbnb, another trusted option for finding alternative accommodations, usually for much less than the standard hotel room.

“Taking trains and public transportation in cities, like buses and subways, can save you more than 50 percent,” Jet says. Once you have your chosen destination, download maps, apps and guides to make the going smoother. Could-be complicated transportation systems such as the Moscow metro or London tube will be much easier to navigate if you’ve studied them ahead of time. Apps, like MetrO, let you study the world’s transportation systems and offer downloadable updates as needed.
 
7. Join the club. Don’t forget about savings through memberships, like AAA, Costco or Sam’s Club, your church or AARP. Be sure your travel agent is aware of your age and affiliation with any groups that might lead to exclusive savings. If you’re a credit-card holder, pay attention to such perks as double mileage deals or the chance to check luggage for free.
 
Even if you’re not at an elite level, tout your loyalty to any airline, hotel or rental car company — sometimes partnerships can lead to significant savings or a windfall of reward points that will save you money later. Remember money-saving rule No. 1: Never be afraid to ask.
 
Stephanie Oswald is an Emmy-winning journalist, television personality and the co-founder/editor-in-chief of Travelgirl magazine.