My FIRST RULE OF TRAVEL: Find a great airfare deal or affordable destination -- then figure out a reason to go there! Eventually you'll see the world at a fraction of the normal price!
To help you plan nearly every part of your trip, here are some recommendations to get you on your way!
NAVIGATION: Jump directly to these topics:
DOMESTIC AIRLINE TICKETS
Flexibility is the key to landing a great deal! First, try not to 'box' specifics when searching airfares. For example, you will pay significantly more for your travel if you insist on traveling to a specific destination - and on specific dates. Even choosing times of departure and return on pull-down websites can make a difference in what you pay. For example, if you choose a 1:00PM departure for your flight and a 5:00PM return, you may be missing out on discount seats still available for an early morning departure and a mid-day return. Again, there's no way to know this until you modify your time and/or date preferences -- several times. 'Boxing' a trip will leave you few opportunities to take advantage of sale airfares.
When you have firm travel plans, start gathering airline quotes several weeks in advance, but resist making a purchase until you know the fare patterns between two cities, or until a too-hard-to-pass-up deal comes along.
So let's get started with these websites that allow for flexible date searches.
BEST OPTION: Google Flights offers a number of best fare search options. Enter your FROM/TO city pairs, or click on the Multi-city tab if you plan to fly out of a city other than your destinations -- or when you're planning visit more than one destination. You can also include alternate airports (ex. DCA, IAD, BWI). Once you begin to select travel dates, monthly calendars will display rates for each day. You'll begin to see a pattern of airfare rates as you search each 30-day period. Tickets cannot be purchased at this website, but directs users to the carrier chosen. Over time you'll discover more ways to tweak your entries for better results.
When you need inspiration and you're driven by price, visit Google Flight Explorer. You can enter a destination as general as 'Europe' and start to see how fares change by travel season. Mousing over the chart shows the low airfares for each date. Clicking on a deal will take you to the regular Google Flights service for a full list of airfares.
Flexible date searches at Kayak (part of the Priceline Group) lets users choose a +/-3 days option to a preferred departure date. Results show a calendar of airfares. When you find a fare you like, you'll be linked directly to the supplier to finish your booking. This helps avoid booking fees and allows you to use and accumulate travel points/frequent flyer miles.
Need a bit of inspiration? I love the Kayak Explore tool. Plug in your hometown, and then see a world map showing the latest prices. Narrow in on an area of the map to see a wider range of prices. You can easily limit your search by price range, time frame and more. Try it!
When you're flexible with travel dates, try the Southwest Shortcut to see results on a monthly fare calendars.
Enter your city pairs, choose a departure month, length of the trip, and the "My dates are flexible" option at United Airlines. Results are shown on that calendar month, or skip back or forward months (up to 330 days in advance) to search for lower rates. You can also easily change the length of the trip for even more results.
Cheapair.com, an online travel agency (OTA) permits airfare searches up to 330 days in advance.
Frontier, JetBlue and Virgin America all permit users to advance week-by-week to view alternative fares. For best results, search one-way trip details (open another browser window for a separate one-way search).
Worth noting: When "Best price, Shortest Flight Time & Fewest Layovers" are important to you, visit Hipmunk. Although it takes a bit of getting used to, its unique AGONY button searches this combination of requirements and lists on a graph which airline ticks all of those boxes. Watch out: The top carriers listed might not offer the lowest price.
One downside of meta-search websites is that certain airlines will be missing from results. Airlines such as Southwest or Allegiant direct sell only on their websites (Airfarewatchdog.comincludes Southwest and Allegiant Air deals). Additionally, third-party websites do not have exclusivity to all airline inventory. Airlines can often reserve the lowest fares and exclusive private sales for their own website. Bottom line? Check both online travel agencies ( and individual airline websites for the best range of price results. An online travel agency (OTA) such as Expedia or Travelocity might offer the lowest airfare by suggesting an itinerary using one airline outbound and other for your return. Would a price search at Delta.com suggest you fly home on a cheaper Southwest flight?
If you must travel at the last-minute (less than a 7-day advance notice), consider using the "Name Your Own Price" feature at Priceline. One caveat: You cannot control which airline you'll travel with, or the flight times. However, the savings can be significantly less than purchasing a full-fare ticket directly from an airline. Another idea would be to consider flying one of the budget airlines you might not otherwise consider (Spirit, for example).
FEE FRENZY! Airline fees can and often do exceed the cost of your ticket. Many of these 'extras' can be avoided on shorter flights, but baggage fees continue to be the 'gotcha' category for the airlines.
Bankrate.com has combed the websites of these domestic carriers to help you compare airline fees: American, Alaska, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, jetBlue, Southwest, USAirways and United. Just under the introduction, you'll see a tablet of blue boxes which can be individually selected to learn specifics on fees (or perks) in these categories:
Credit card breaks
Blanket & pillow
Change ticket fees
Think you overpaid for an airline ticket? The airlines that offer refunds for any price drop include Alaska, JetBlue and Southwest. Virgin America offers refunds for price drops of $75 or more; Hawaiian for price drops of $100 or more, and American/USAirways, Delta and United for price drops of $200 or more. However, airlines may charge a rebooking fee that could wipe out any savings. Get all the details before you pursue a refund!
Nearly all name-brand hotel chains now ensure consumers of the absolute lowest rates when booking directly at specific brand sites. You should still shop several general travel websites and compare rates from the brand website.
Caution! There are an estimated 480 online hotel bookings per minute. As more and more consumers book online, the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is sending out a warning about dubious hotel booking sites. Watch out for misleading vendors when making your reservation!
If you don't want to enter the bidding arena and want a specific hotel for your stay, try a free service from Tingo. Tingo tracks your booked hotel price and if the price goes down, it will automatically rebook your room at the lower rate (doesn't work if you booked a nonrefundable rate). The site keeps checking for price drops up until the day of your arrival or until the rate becomes nonrefundable (usually 24-48 hours before arrival). Each time the rate drops, Tingo sends you an email with a new booking number at the lower price. The refund is made directly to your credit card. Tingo works with virtually every hotel group and thousands of independent properties.
Need a hotel at the last-minute? Try these app-based marketplaces:
HotelTonight: Sells last-minute rooms that would otherwise remain empty
RoomerTravel: Search and book hotel rooms from people who are stuck with a hotel reservation they no longer need. It works the other way, too. Have a pre-paid room you cannot use? Sell your reservation at Roomer.
I have obsessive compulsive disorder when it comes to saving on hotels -- and have even more tips to share on how to score a hotel deal!
If you need several bedrooms, prefer to have your own cooking facilities, or if you plan to stay for more than a couple nights in a destination, you'll often get a much better deal by renting an apartment, home or condo from a private owner. To avoid surprises, look for accommodations that already have lots of reviews. Also, be sure to discuss cancelation policies, house rules, deposits and payment methods upfront with the owner. Check your options at these website:
AirBnB: Private homes, apartments and more
VRBO: Private homes, apartments and more
HomeAway: Private homes, apartments and more
Venere: International B&Bs, guest houses, country homes and more
SlowTrav: International villas, farms, cottages, apartments rentals
Reids Guides: Lodging in castles, a monastery - even an Amish farm
UniversityRooms: Rent a room at Oxford University, a dorm room in Rome and more
Agritourism World: Farm or country home stays in the U.S. and Europe
A car is a car. Repeat. Shop car rental rates at many websites. Start a general search at carrentals.com and hotwire.com. Next, place a lower priced bid at Priceline.com (accepted bids are nonrefundable). Auto rentals from Priceline will get you wheels from the brand names you trust.
If just one or two persons will be using the rental, opt for a cheap economy-size vehicle. It's likely that you'll be upgraded to a larger vehicle at no cost if there are none available on your arrival. Just don't fall for the agent encouraging you to upgrade for an extra per day fee. Insist on your original cost.
More than one driver? Avoid those dreaded extra fees for an additional driver. Avis, Budget and Enterprise allows a spouse or domestic partner as an additional driver without extra cost. The waiver also applies to business colleagues. Alamo, Dollar, Hertz and Thrifty all charge between $9.99 and $13.50 per day additional. National charges for additional drivers but waives the fee for Emerald Club members (free to join). The extra driver fee can sometimes be avoided by booking through Costco, or using membership numbers for AAA, AARP or USAA.
Autoslash is a site that will track your car rental and rebook you automatically if the price goes down before you pick up the car. In addition, Autoslash will apply any eligible discount coupon codes, which may further lower your cost.
Are you a Costco or Sam's Club member? Exclusive rates are available when booking at the online vacation divisions. Both retailers scan applicable coupons, codes and discounts to find the best price available.
BUS & RAIL (domestic & international)
Wanderu.com is the simplest way to find and book inter-city bus (including Greyhound) and train travel between any two points in the U.S. and Canada. Enter your departure and arrival locations and dates and Wanderu searches hundreds of schedules, routes and operators to get you exactly where you need to go. Results are given for travel no more than two months in advance (that's because most bus companies don’t release schedules past two months).
Routes International provides web links to bus lines operating around the world.
UK-based International Rail specializes in worldwide rail tickets and passes. Bookings can be made for 66,000 point-to-point routes in Europe including Eurostar, French TGV, German ICE, InterCity, EuroCity, Thalys, Thello, Trenitalia and Spanish high speed trains. Rail bookings for other countries include Australia, New Zealand, Asia and South Africa.
Use GoEuro.com to compare prices on air, bus and rail travel within and between the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, BeNeLux countries and Switzerland.
PACKAGES & TOURS
Are you getting the best deal on a vacation by booking each component separately? Double check. You may find a less expensive price when you book a bundled getaway. For example, Bookit.com offers a calendar displaying total trip prices for bundled packages -- including airfare, a hotel stay and a car rental.
Perhaps your trip is a bit complicated and you need professional help? Turn to the American Society of Travel Agents, or ASTA - the leading advocate for the travel industry and the traveling public. Find a travel agent or travel specialist (over 37 languages are represented) for every destination and style. Some agents will charge a fee for their expertise, but the cost may be worthwhile -- particularly if you're traveling to destinations off the beaten tourist paths.
Ready to take your first cruise? Sit down with a local cruise expert in your neighborhood. Find one at CLIA - the official trade organization of the cruise industry of North America. The website is also a great guide for researching specific cruise lines and their amenities. Another source for up-to-the-minute cruise bargains is at Cruise Critic.
Trip Tip: Always pay tour and cruise deposits and final payments by a real credit card and never by debit card or check.
See the FAQ section below for insight into trip insurance.
INTERNATIONAL BOOKING & PLANNING
First things first. Is your passport up-to-date (or can you even find it!)? Get pricing information and necessary forms to renew or apply for a new passport. Once you have all necessary documents in order, complete the application process at a local authorized office near you.
Plan a trip to Europe during shoulder seasons (April-May, October) and low season months(November through March) when airfares are dirt cheap! That may be a huge sacrifice, but you'll save huge dollars if you are flexible enough to visit cities ONLY when deep reductions are offered, such as when new service to a city is announced with introductory prices. They call it high season for a reason! Airfares offered from June through early to mid-September and again from mid-December through Christmas Day are the highest published of the year. Wait for it! As a particular season is about to end - late October, for instance - airlines can often mimic big-box retailers by offering 'clearance' sales with ultra-deep reductions and with the lifting of advance purchase requirements.
Many airlines only offer the deepest discounts at their own websites. Three in particular include Aer Lingus (Ireland), Iberia (Spain) and Qantas (Australia, New Zealand). Rates can be up to $400 less than rates found at OTAs.
In addition, consider the newbies and lesser-known carriers: XL Airways (to France); ArkeFly (Florida to Amsterdam) and Norwegian Air Shuttle (select U.S. cities to Europe).
PlanetAmex has consolidator contracts with over 70 airlines for discounted international Business and First Class travel.
For travel within the Europe continent, check Which Budget to see who flys where. Searches include 340 airlines within 210 countries.
Does your school schedule prevent you from taking advantage of off-season specials? Teachers, students and other full-time students can find decent summer airfares and specials at these websites:
Finally, be sure to read my Overseas Travel Guide: Money, Mobile & Banking before your international travels start. It's got everything you need to know about how to use cell phone, mobile and WiFi overseas, and the best ways to exchange and handle money.
Do I need a travel agent?
If you're having trouble finding the great deals you hear me suggest, know that the lowest fares are often only offered on a select number of seats - and not every day of the week. If you see a fare that seems too good to be true, call a travel agent immediately (find one in your neighborhood at ASTA). Travel agents have access to a professional database. The limited number of sale seats sell out before they're published on the online booking sites -- or even on the airline's own website.Calling the airline directly can be the least effective way to get a deal. It's not in their interest to make these specials easy to find, and they're often not even visible to the airline agents.
The best way to find a good travel agent is to ask your friends, neighbors, co-workers, or people that brag about their fabulous vacations to refer you to their agent. Yes, travel agents do charge fees that range from a percentage of airfare to a flat fee, but your ultimate savings could put you on the plus side -- particularly if you're traveling to destinations off the beaten tourist paths. Enter your zip code at ASTA to find an agent in your neighborhood.
Perhaps your trip is a bit complicated and you need professional help? Turn to the American Society of Travel Agents, or ASTA - the leading advocate for the travel industry and the traveling public. Find a travel specialist (over 37 languages are represented) for every destination and style.
Ready to take your first cruise? Sit down with a local cruise expert in your area. Find one at CLIA- the official trade organization of the cruise industry of North America. The website is also a great guide for researching specific cruise lines and their amenities.
Trip Tip: Always pay deposits and final payments by a real credit card and never by debit card or check.
See the FAQ section below for insight into trip insurance.
When is the best time to book a cheap airline ticket?
No one has a crystal ball -- although some claim to have researched the topic scientifically. A study from CheapAir.com claims the magic number is 54 days in advance (7.5 weeks). The conclusion was reached after the airline booking website monitored 4,191,533 trips last year, based on bookings made 320 to 1 day in advance.
So what's the best answer? If you buy tickets too far in advance you might end up paying too much. If possible, start searching fares 120 days in advance. Booking 90 days in advance should also work for the budget traveler (five-six months for international trips). That said, if you are flying during peak holiday seasons or over spring breaks to hot spots such as Cancun, Orlando or top ski resorts -- booking six months out will likely score the discount seats.
Do I need trip insurance?
Travel insurance policies are designed to protect consumers by giving them refunds in the event of illness to the traveler or immediate family member, or to provide a refund in the case of company, tour operator or airline default.
Purchase a policy when taking a cruise, a tour or traveling on a trip that requires pre-payment of thousands of dollars. Just be sure you purchase a policy independent of the cruise, tour or vacation planner. Never purchase the trip protection plan from the trip organizer. Those types of policies are designed to protect only the company and not the consumer!
You can expect a policy to cost around 6 percent of the total cost of the trip. Of course, it's possible to run that number way up.
Comparison shop for trip insurance policies at InsureMyTrip.
A new $25 domestic airline trip insurance product from AirCare will give an air traveler for $1,000 if a plane sits on the tarmac — with you in it — for more than two hours. The $1,000 is automatically transferred into a PayPal account. AirCare tracks your trip in real time, so you don't have to submit a claim to receive a payment. The policy also pays for missed connections due to flight delays and luggage delays.
For more on travel insurance, see Clark's guide.
When should I use my frequent flyer miles?
Do not redeem mileage for domestic trips that fall under $400. Instead, save and continue to accumulate miles to use for off-peak travel to Europe or Asia (roughly a 50,000-60,000 mile redemption). Another way to use points is to upgrade your international Economy Class ticket to a Business Class seat.
When you just don't have enough mile point for a full ticket redemption, some airlines (such as Delta Air Lines) will allow you to apply as little as 10,000 miles to reduce the total ticket cost by $100. Apply 40,000 for a $400 reduction (usually $100 per 10,000 miles).
Whatever you do, don't let those hard-earned miles expire. If you cannot use them before the deadline -- gift them. Each airline will accept mile donations for various charitable organizations.
TRAVEL PLANNING TOOLS
The Internet is a traveler's best tool for researching and planning a trip. Try this when looking for places to stay and what attractions are not to be missed: Pull up one of your favorite search engines, such as Google, Bing or others. Type in the name of the city you want to find out more about adding the key words - Official Tourism. This way you'll eliminate sites that want to sell you something.
Get real-world advice and opinions from other travelers to help you decide on the best accommodations or attractions. Read both the good and the bad reviews to get the clearest picture. For hotels and resorts, note how (and if) the management responds to the reviews to get an idea of the customer service you'll experience. Check out traveler's photos and see how they compare to the advertised images.
How do I learn about airlines specials and sales?
Sign up at various websites to receive email promotions, notifications of sales, or reductions for your desired city pair. This search will give you a pattern of prices for comparison.
Sign yourself up into the frequent flyer programs of various airlines. Members receive email promotions and notifications of special sales. Another way to learn in quick-time about special offers is to 'follow' airlines and travel companies on Twitter. And, follow Clark on Twitter @Clark_Travel and Clark Smart Travel Deals on Facebook.
Finally, get help from fellow travelers -- and share your travel insight at the Travel Message Board. Happy Travels!