Archive for Sunday, June 8, 2003

Strategies for a cheap vacation

June 8, 2003

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Let's set aside all this talk about the economy, the stock market and taxes and get down to something really important -- summer vacation.

Lots of us are feeling pinched this spring. Can you save a few bucks and still have a good time? Sure.

First, the touchy-feelie part: Decide what really makes you happy.

Let's say that half the pleasure of a vacation comes from merely not having to go to work, and another 30 or 40 percent of the joy is in being with the people you love.

OK, I grab those figures out of the air, but you see what I mean: If most of what makes a vacation good has nothing to do with spending money, there's less reason to spend a lot. If a $5,000 vacation will only make you slightly happier than a $2,000 vacation, it's not worth it.

This leads to one of my favorite options, the occasional stay-at-home vacation. To make it work, treat it just like a traveling vacation. Pay the bills ahead of time, mow the lawn, put together a list of things to do. In fact, most of us live within a few hours' drive of attractions that other people come great distances to visit.

My wife, son and I had a home-based vacation a few years ago and had a terrific time riding our bikes up to the town pool every day at noon. It felt like an elite, limited-admission club, since so many pool members were spending those two August weeks on overcrowded beaches.

If you must travel, driving is generally cheaper than flying, but there are a couple of ways to cut airfare costs. Most people know you can get cheaper coach-class tickets by ordering well in advance. But you also can get cheap seats at the last minute with online services such as www.priceline.com and www.hotwire.com.

Airline seats are perishable -- they can't sit on a shelf to be sold another day. So the airlines quietly will sell them dirt cheap a day or two before the flight. I recently used Priceline to get a next-day flight for $250, when the airline was quoting more than $1,000.

The drawback is that you can't be choosy about just when you leave or what airline you fly, and you may even have to be flexible about the airport. But my two Priceline experiences have resulted in very convenient flights. The fact is, flights are scheduled for when most people want to fly, and that's not 3 a.m.

For the best chance of success with this approach, think of three or four alternate destinations and prepare to take off for any one on short notice. You also can shop for accommodations and rental cars this way.

I've also found cheap airfares, hotels and cars on the big travel sites, www.travelocity.com/, www.expedia.com and www.orbitz.com.

But before accepting one of their deals, double-check the old-fashioned way, with the Yellow Pages. Lots of hotels and motels, especially the cheaper ones, don't appear on the big travel sites. There's a good Yellow Pages site at www.infospace.com.

Maybe you'd prefer "free" accommodations? I'm not kidding -- there are lots of organizations that help vacationers trade homes with travelers from locations in the United States and other countries. Best leave plenty of time to organize this. Find these outfits by setting your search engine to "home exchanges." There's a good one at www.homelink.org.

For deep discounts on accommodations, keep an eye out for timeshare come-ons. With a timeshare, a buyer gets the right to use a resort apartment for a number of weeks per year. To get customers, timeshare companies offer inexpensive stays for a weekend to a week, on condition you tour the facility and sit through a sales presentation that usually runs 90 minutes or so.

You can get on the mailing list for timeshare offers by asking the companies for information. Locate them by putting "Hawaii," "Orlando" or any other location into your search engine and add the word "timeshare."

Enduring a sales pitch is a good trade-off for hundreds of dollars in hotel savings.

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