Summer travel is on everyone's mind these days.
While more than half of Americans plan to take a trip before Labor Day, most are still feeling the pinch of the economic downturn and want to spend their travel dollars wisely. But with airfares and hotel prices up considerably since last year, finding a vacation to fit your budget is more difficult.
For cheaper airfares, Tom Parsons, chief executive officer of Arlington-based BestFares.com, recommends heading west.
"Say Disneyland instead of Disney World to the kids," Parsons said. "Virgin America has kept the West Coast pretty reasonable in terms of airfares."
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BestFares.com this week had fares to Los Angeles for a week in late July ranging from $314 to $827, so comparing offerings can save you a bundle. Parsons recommends flying on Tuesday or Wednesday for the lowest fares.
Also, consider a more distant airport.
BestFares.com recently added a nearby airport search to allow flyers to compare fares at outlying airports. The savings can be significant, Parsons said.
For example, a round-trip flight to New York in late July is $402, but a flight for the same time to suburban White Plains, N.Y., 35 miles from Manhattan, was $300. Similarly, a round-trip flight to Orlando, Fla., starting on a Tuesday costs $325, but was almost $70 more than a flight to Melbourne, Fla., less than an hour from Orlando.
"Those savings are multiplied when you have four or five people in a family," Parsons said.
Southwest Airlines is expected to launch a summer sale in a couple of weeks, Parsons said, but it will mostly be for fall travel.
"If you're not mandated to fly in the summer because of the kids, you've still got 60 days to plan around an airfare sale," he said.
Most airlines match Southwest's annual summer sale.
For those frustrated by baggage fees (some airlines like Spirit charge even when you carry your bag on the plane), Parsons says to check your frequent-flier credit card or sign up for one before you leave. Paying with an American Airlines Citibank card will get you one bag free for up to five passengers as long as the primary card holder is listed first on the tickets, he said. Delta's American Express card and United's Visa card also have free baggage offers.
And there's good news for summer travelers hitting the road: Gasoline prices peaked before Memorial Day and are headed down, said Sarah Schimmer, spokesman for AAA Texas.
"They've been on the decline for six or seven weeks in Texas," she said. "We expected to see a bump up over Memorial Day, but we just didn't get it."
Analysts expect to see gas prices in decline throughout the summer, Schimmer said.
"We usually see a peak after July 4, but analysts say we will see a decline in most of the summer barring a huge economic event," she said. "Most think we peaked for the year in early April."
While gas prices are low, car travelers need to be aware of road hazards. Schimmer said AAA Texas expects around 340,000 stranded motorists in the state this summer, based on previous summer calls for help from members.
"Fifty thousand of those calls are tire-related," she said. "Tires are easy for people to assess at home to determine wear and air pressure. This is not a big-ticket item in terms of cost."
Other reasons for stranded motorists are vehicle lockouts and towing requests, she said.
Hotel costs have also been on the rise, averaging $107, up 5 percent from 2011, according to a lodging analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Consumer Reports recently came out with several strategies to get the best price on rooms.
Try "opaque" websites. Using blind sites -- which offer good discounts but don't let you know the name of the hotel -- is the single best way to save money on a room. Priceline and Hotwire are two options. Although you won't know the exact hotel until after you book the room, you usually now how many stars it is rated.
Learn to haggle. Just 28 percent of respondents to a recent survey tried bargaining, but 78 percent of those who did won an upgrade or a lower rate. Ask about nonadvertised specials, and try using free parking or a different bed size as a bargaining chip.
Find Internet-only offers. The cheapest advertised rates tend to be on the Internet, but the transaction comes with strings attached such as requiring full payment when booking and not allowing cancellations or changes to the reservation. Internet specials come and go, so check often.
Price match. Consumer Reports said almost every chain and online travel site offers this. If a customer has booked a room but finds a cheaper advertised price on the same date at the same hotel for the same type of room, they can submit an online claim within 24 hours of booking and receive a refund of the difference plus a bonus.
Teresa McUsic's column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net