Can you travel in comfort and style without causing your credit cards to scream "ouch" or losing your home to crushing debt? Can you preserve your hard-earned money and still travel as though money is no object?
Traveling on the cusp of the season -- the months following school commencement and prior to school ending -- is the answer. During those months, the annual downswing in travel opens a bargain basement for hotels, airfares and cruises.
In fact this drop is so predictable and precipitous that it annually brings out a small army of savvy travelers. In my case, after suffering through the annual blistering Texas heat, I particularly enjoy traveling in the fall when temperatures are crisp and the air is clear.
Most of us have a vacation spot we've placed up there on the proverbial pedestal. A paradise that we are determined to see .... someday (after we win the lottery). Once you pick your spot, a little legwork and some well-placed phone calls can help you get to your destination without breaking the bank.
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Get your tickets first
The single biggest expense for nearly all international trips is the cost of the airfare. If your life will permit you the flexibility to roll with a giant fare dip when it occurs, you can use the resultant date as a starting point from which to plan the rest of your trip.
That's when you need to hit the Internet. With so many confusing websites dedicated to travel, there is one that stands out when searching for affordable airfare: Kayak.com.
Kayak quickly and simply calls up the lowest fares for your designated itinerary and displays that information in graphic detail for side-by-side comparison. The site incorporates data from hundreds of travel sites like Orbitz, Travelocity and all of the airlines. There is a simple, easy-to-use toolbar allowing you to refine the results by adjusting several trip variables. You simply modify your found itinerary via sliding bars and check boxes. The variables are how many stops you can tolerate (nonstop, one stop, or two or more stops), maximum time of layovers, desired time of departure and arrival, which airlines to include or exclude, etc. As you adjust the itinerary by these variables, the results window instantly eliminates and updates according to your new criterion.
Kayak also displays graphically the lowest available fare for each day of any month for your itinerary. Expect fares to increase within seven days of departure during and surrounding holidays, and for all time periods when kids are out of school. Normal fares from D/FW Airport to Hawaii, for example, average $800-$1,100 per person round-trip during summer months and holiday breaks. During the remainder of the year, the lowest fares average $550-$650 per person. The fare difference is even more stark to Europe or Asia.
Stay on alert
Once you've entered your itinerary and the results are displayed, you may opt for another valuable Kayak feature -- a fare alert via e-mail for your selected itinerary. You can chose from daily, weekly or monthly e-mails that will show, at a glance, what is happening to your airfare among the lowest priced airlines flying that route. It will also show you if the fare has increased or decreased and by how much since your last notification.
It was via this daily update that I was alerted to an incredible plunge in a fare for a recent international trip. Finding something that exceeds even the truly affordable deal that you've been searching for feels like going to Vegas and being dealt a royal flush.
My e-mail brought word that a first-class fare had dropped down to only a few dollars above a coach ticket. This fare offered wide, comfortable seats that reclined to nearly flat (nice for a 9-hour overnight flight), superb meals served course-by-course with actual real silverware (including ... yes ... a metal knife), an amenity kit containing a cornucopia of items geared toward making the flight more comfortable (foot-warming socks, a hair brush, toothbrush, lip balm, a mask to block out light while sleeping). I sat stunned for a few seconds then clicked on the Kayak link taking me to the airline's website for purchase. I watched as that fare disappeared completely within a few short hours.
I celebrated my airline coup for 24 hours before settling down to flesh out the trip.
Take your seat
My next task was to find the perfect seats on the plane. SeatGuru.com is an independent website that displays airplane seating charts pointing out pros of the best seats and the cons of the worst. Here you'll find detail not available at airline websites. You select your specific airline and plane and a seat map appears. The seats are color-coded -- red, yellow, green and white. Rolling your mouse over any seat offers a pop-up telling you specifics about that seat, such as power connections, entertainment options for long-haul flights, width and legroom. I discovered that the two seats I was automatically assigned when I purchased my tickets were undesirable due to the proximity to the galley and the tendency for passengers to congregate in the space adjacent. I changed our seats.
Find the right hotel
There are two trains of thought about hotels: Save money or create an experience. If you are going to the paradise listed at the top of your bucket list, the local youth hostel in a bunk bed is probably not where you want to stay.
For a hotel choice this important, I felt it necessary to call in a professional. Surfing the net is a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, the information about a world-famous destination is endless, and sifting through it a daunting task. However, if you're lucky enough to have formed a relationship with a skilled travel agent, this is where it will pay off. One phone call to my travel agent landed me a room at a five-star hotel at a price that was nearly half what it would have cost me in high season and below what was being advertised on the website. She was able to obtain two items that I would not have been given if I had booked online: breakfast daily and an upgraded room, both at no additional charge.
Some of the most popular destinations are packed with people, and a visit can be like fighting your way through a New York subway station at rush hour.
We enjoyed our trip with the sights practically to ourselves, in one of the finer hotels. The weather was warm with cool nights. The photography was amazing, and I didn't have to fight for a view. As we left, they were locking the hotel doors behind us.
It was one of the finest experiences in our lives and one that we were easily able to afford thanks to traveling on the cusp, and a little careful planning.
Len Marino is president of the award-winning physician search firm M&M Associates in San Antonio and a retired Army pilot. Len and his wife have traveled extensively.