If you’d like to take a vacation (or two or three) in 2016 and save money doing it, you’ll want to hear what I just heard attending the annual New York Times Travel Show in New York City on Sunday.
Experts providing their best, timeliest advice: Arthur and Pauline Frommer, the father and daughter who publish the famed Frommer travel guides and run Frommers.com; Matthew Kepnes (Nomadicmatt.com), author of How to Travel the World on $50 a Day; Chris McGinnis of Travelskills.com and the former travel correspondent for CNN Headline News; John “Johnny Jet” DiScala of JohnnyJet.com and Lisa Iannucci, aka The Virgin Traveler, who targets older people with little experience traveling.
Why Travel May Cost You Less
Thanks to the sharp drop in the price of oil and the strong dollar, you may pay less to travel than a year ago just by flying abroad.
“As of this morning, oil was selling for $33 a barrel, compared to $105 as recently as 10 months ago,” noted Arthur Frommer. One likely effect, he said: “Airlines will be totally unable to increase the cost of their tickets this coming year. And if there is enough public protest, they may even be required to reduce the price of tickets,” since fuel is their biggest expense.
And the dollar, Frommer said, has been “reaching heights we haven’t seen in many, many years,” also making foreign jaunts more of a bargain.
Iceland’s WOW Air offered one-way fares between Boston and Paris for $99; it plans to start up in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
One general money-saving tip from his daughter, Pauline: Take a tour. “If you want an inexpensive vacation, tours are really suffering,” she said. “River cruises have become so extraordinarily popular; people who used to go on guided motorcoach tours now go on river cruises instead through the heart of countries.” (This might be the Downton Abbey effect, since the PBS blockbuster series is sponsored by a river cruise line.)
And if you haven’t traveled in a while — or ever — “start small,” said Iannucci. “If that means driving four hours to someplace new, do that and then explore the area.”
With that overview, here’s how to save the most when taking a vacation in 2016:
Where the Buys Are
Japan and Canada are particular values in 2016. Two years ago, Arthur Frommer said, the exchange rate in Japan was 70 yen to the dollar; now, it’s 117 yen to the dollar. “Japan was once ultra expensive. Now it’s moderately priced for American tourists,” he said.
Similarly, he added, “Canada now costs 40 percent less than as recently as a year ago.” He’s particularly fond of Lake Louise (in the Canadian Rockies, near Banff), “one of the most beautiful sites on earth.”
How to Save on Airfare
Check out the huge savings with budget carriers like Norwegian Air and WOW Air. Norwegian Air, the third largest low-cost carrier in Europe, is on a tear to attract U.S. fliers. “It’s making Scandinavia supercheap,” said McGinnis.
Norwegian leaves from cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale and flies throughout Europe as well as — get this — to some Caribbean spots. Pauline Frommer mentioned that Norwegian recently introduced $99 fares each way from New York City to Guadeloupe.
Norwegian Air is forcing some U.S. airlines to slash their international fares, too. “I bought an American one-way fare for $1 plus tax [$324 in taxes] from Los Angeles to Copenhagen last summer due to its competition with Norwegian,” said Johnny Jet. “I think it’ll happen again this year.”
Iceland’s WOW Air recently offered one-way fares between Boston and Paris for $99. It also flies from Washington, D.C. and plans to start up in Los Angeles and San Francisco this summer.
Be flexible. “Changing your schedule by a day or airport location can save you hundreds of dollars,” said Kepnes. Pauline Frommer, citing a recent Airline Reporting Corporation survey, said passengers found 19 percent savings, on average, by booking on Sundays. “Not Tuesdays, which is what they found two years ago when they did this study; maybe the airlines wised up,” she added.
Don’t lock yourself into flying late morning or early afternoon, either. Johnny Jet recommends looking for flights between 5 and 7 am or after 8 pm, when fares are often lower.
If you can, fly (and stay in hotels) during the “dead weeks,” said McGinnis. The cheapest times of the year to travel, the dead weeks are in January (until Martin Luther King Day) and February (excluding Valentine’s Day and President’s Day, which fall around the same time this year). Also: the first two weeks of December.
The first two weeks of June — shoulder season — will offer good deals this year, too, particularly for flights to Europe. Late August could also provide discounts, since kids are going back to school earlier these days. “Airfare sales for summer will kick in around August 19,” said McGinnis.
But do NOT travel the last two weeks of March this year, if you can avoid it, said McGinnis. It’s spring break and Easter. “It’ll be one of the most crowded, most expensive spring breaks we’ve seen in awhile,” McGinnis said.
Use little-known sites that specialize in scrounging around for the least expensive airfare deals. Kepnes favors The Flight Deal, Airfare Watchdog (Johnny Jet likes it, too) and Holiday Pirates as well as these two that Pauline Frommer recommended: Momondo and SkyScanner.
Kepnes urges you to get on the mailing lists of these sites so you’ll hear about cheap flights and mistake airfares. “The really good deals are gone like that!” he noted.
He also uses Google Flights, where you can type in the city you’ll fly out of and then click “everywhere” (under Discover Destinations/Places) to get a map of the world with current flight prices all over. “Then you can say, ‘Oh, I see it’s cheap to go to Brazil right now.’”
And one caution: Watch out for “basic fares” from American and Delta. “They’re really, really ugly,” said Pauline Frommer. These fares don’t let you choose a seat and, worse still, won’t let you change a ticket even for a fee.
How to Save on Lodging
Try an assortment of sites to find budget hotels. Kepnes suggests starting with Priceline and Expedia and then expanding to Travel Pony, Agoda (for Asia) and Tingo (“which searches a ton of sites at once”).
A Frommers survey found that HotelsCombined.com and Trivago offered the best hotel deals. “Trivago wasn’t best for budget hotels, but was good for middle-priced and expensive hotels,” said Pauline Frommer. She also suggested trying The Bidding Traveler which will — shhh!!! — tell you how much it bid on Priceline and the names of the hotels it got, which Priceline won’t reveal until you book.
When you find a hotel you like, call it. By asking for a better rate than what you found online, you may just get one, said Kepnes. Also, said McGinnis, inquire about the location of the room; you can probably nail a more comfortable one. “You’re much likely to get a better room than one the property management computer program picks out,” he noted.
Sign up for Groupon and get its hotel deals emailed to you. “The only downside,” said Iannucci, “is that you have to pay for the hotel ahead of time.” But the savings can be large. “We went to the Orlando area last summer and got a deal with two bedrooms and a kitchen for $400 for a week — plus breakfast included every morning.”
Try an apartment rental. “It’s often cheaper than a hotel and away from the tourist areas,” said Kepnes. “It’s a great way to meet locals, too.” Kepnes boasted that he and a friend split a room in “ridiculously expensive” St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands) for $35, where the cheapest hotel room was $100.”
How to Save When Spending
Use travel credit cards. “They give you better consumer protection, you can check bags free, you can get access to airport lounges and free airport stays,” said Kepnes. “And they can help you avoid foreign transaction fees overseas.”
Kepnes’s favorite cards: Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink (for business), Amex Starwood Preferred Guest Travel, Barclaycard Arrival and Capital One Venture. (You can find more of his advice on the cards at Nomadicmatt.us/hackTRAVEL.)
Eat where the tourists don’t. “I always go five blocks in any direction from the tourist area,” said Kepnes. “You can get much better food at half the price.”
He’s also a fan of meal sharing at a resident’s home. Sites like EatWithaLocal.com let you dine in one with a small group. “For $20, you can get an amazing pasta meal prepared by local people and you’ll make new friends,” said Kepnes.
One other dining tip from Kepnes: “Don’t ask people ‘Where should I eat?’ Say: ‘Where do you eat?’” His reasoning: “If you say ‘Where should I eat?’ they’ll assume you want to eat where the tourists do. Change one word around and it gives you a whole different answer.”