Your budget need not restrain your wanderlust. With our travel tips, you can save on airfare, lodging, vacation packages and cruises and get gone without breaking the bank.
Save on Airfare
1) Fly when no one else wants to. Fares rise and fall with air traffic — so says the law of supply and demand. So plan to fly on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday afternoon to bag a cheaper plane ticket (and possibly a less hectic airport experience). Early mornings and late nights are also less popular and more affordable times to fly, as are Thanksgiving and the eves and days of Christmas and New Year's.
2) Be flexible about where you go. You can use Kayak's Explore tool to pinpoint on a world map all the destinations you can visit within your airfare budget.
3) Use Kayak.com — our favorite among fare aggregators — to quickly scan hundreds of travel Web sites for the cheapest airfares. Check fares on Southwest.com separately — Kayak doesn't include fares for the budget airline.
4) Sign up for airlines' free e-mail alerts to get sale notifications and coupon codes delivered straight to your in-box. Or visit AirfareWatchdog, where the site's staff sniffs out, aggregates and shares those promotional codes and special offers.
5) Make sure you're buying at the right time with Bing Travel's "price predictor." Just enter your itinerary, and the site will return a list of fares with a recommendation to either buy now — because it expects the fare to rise — or wait for a soon-to-come fare drop.
6) If you're booking a last-minute flight, consider buying a vacation package. Online travel agencies lock in lower fares early and combine them with cheap hotel stays. At the eleventh hour, when fares may spike elsewhere, these bundles may cost less than purchasing the flight alone.
7) Keep an eye on fares, even after you book. You have the right to change or cancel your flight plans for free within 24 hours of booking, thanks to rules introduced by the Department of Transportation in 2012. So if you find a better fare within that window, you can snatch the savings with no penalty. After 24 hours, if you find your booked fare has dropped, some airlines may be willing to refund you the difference. Use Yapta.com to track any price changes on nine major airlines and score any cash back you deserve.
8) Avert the extra baggage fees that most airlines charge. Southwest continues to allow two free checked bags; JetBlue permits one. See SmarterTravel for a comprehensive list of fees from 16 major airlines. And weigh the costs of carrying luggage versus shipping it — see KIP TIP: Save Money By Shipping Your Luggage.
Save on Lodging
9) Book directly through a hotel's Web site. Many places offer lower rates for online booking. You can also sign up to get hotels' e-mails about special promotions and discounts. Just remember the lowest rates are usually prepaid and non-refundable. If you think your plans might change, you'll have to pay the higher, more flexible rates.
10) Double down on tip number five and be flexible to save on a high-class stay. Private-sale sites, such as JetSetter.com, offer deep discounts on luxury hotels for a limited time. But the destinations are random and most sites only offer a few deals at a time.
11) Book blind for rock-bottom rates. The "Priceline Negotiator" and Hotwire.com's "Hot Rates" can cut up to 50% off regular hotel rates. With either site, you specify your length of stay, preferred neighborhood and a guaranteed minimum star class. But you won't know the exact hotel or location until after you pay — an especially big risk when visiting unfamiliar areas, particularly overseas. (Blind booking works fine for car rentals, too; a sedan is a sedan is a sedan. But it's a bigger gamble for flights because you won't know exact departure times or airlines.)
12) Fight the fees. Call your hotel to confirm an online reservation — especially if you booked at the last minute — and check to see whether you're being charged additional fees. Hotels may be willing to waive fees, especially for frequent visitors or rewards-program members. Also, request a copy of your bill the night before you check out so that you have time to dispute any extra charges.
13) Keep an eye on lodging rates, even after you book. If you see a lower rate on the same type of room at your hotel, call the front desk and see if they'll match it. Tingo.com specializes in this kind of cash-back courtesy — if you book a "Money Back" room through the site, it will track the hotel's rates and automatically refund you if the price drops.
14) Consider a home rental for your vacation, especially when traveling with a big group. Such rentals often offer more space and amenities for prices similar to or less than hotels. HomeAway.com offers the biggest selection of rentals, with more than 325,000 listings worldwide.
Save on Vacation Packages
15) Online travel agencies Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz are well known for their bundled bargains. But don't forget to check packages offered by airlines, such as United Airlines' United Vacations, and by smaller travel operators, such as Apple Vacations, for some of the sweetest deals.
16) Bundle all your add-ons, such as rental cars, show tickets, tours and museum passes, when booking packages with online travel agencies. Sometimes the agencies offer those extras at a discount.
17) Seek all-inclusive deals to pay just once for your whole vacation — including lodging, food, drinks and activities — and make it easier to stay within your budget at resorts such as Club Med and Sandals.
Save on Cruises
18) Let travel agents bid for your cruise business. Cruises can prove more complicated than your standard trip by air or land, especially if you're a first-time cruiser, and booking snafus can cost you. At CruiseCompete.com, you can shop for the best travel agent to help you on your journey. Submit your cruise preferences, and the site will relay your request to more than 300 travel agents, who will then make you their best offers.
19) If you're sailing sans travel-agent assistance, book your flight separately. Using Kayak or Bing Travel, you can often find fares for less than the flight cost included in a cruise line's package. Just be sure to schedule enough time between landing and setting sail; the boat won't wait if your flight is delayed.
20) You can score some of the best cruise deals if you book at the last minute — just don't expect the really cheap tickets to get you a stateroom with a view. Cruise ships set sail as scheduled whether or not every cabin is occupied, so cruise lines often offer great last-minute deals to bring aboard as many paying guests as possible. (Airlines, by contrast, have cut many flights from their schedules, making it less likely to find empty seats at the 11th hour.)
21) Sail into big savings with a repositioning cruise. Ships need to take these one-way voyages in order to relocate for the season. For example, ships that cruise near Alaska in the summer head south once fall arrives. And cruise lines invite passengers aboard for the ride at deeply discounted rates. Look to CruiseCompete.com for current deals on repositioning cruises.