Avoid Hot Spots
When it comes to hotel rooms, you really do pay for location, especially during high season. But if you’re willing to stay outside the hot area, you can score a room for 20 to 30 percent less -- regardless of when you go. Do the math to see if it’s worth renting a car and staying a bit out of the way. Otherwise, make sure there’s public transportation available, so you don’t end up spending that cash you saved on cab fare.
A lot of people assume third-party vendors like Travelocity, Orbitz and Kayak offer the best deals. While sometimes they do, it’s often cheaper to book directly with the airline or hotel. Many run specials only through their own websites, so you won’t find them by using the meta-search engines. Rule of thumb: Search the third-party sites first. Then double-check the price through the airline or hotel’s website to make sure you’re getting the best price.
Cash in on Rewards
Using credit card points or miles can be a great way to offset the cost of traveling during peak season. Just remember: Many of the airline-specific credit cards include blackout dates for the most popular travel times. So instead, choose a bank-issued rewards card to rack up travel points and score free flights, hotel stays and upgrades -- at any time.
If camping out at a big-name property doesn’t top your priority list, and you don’t mind letting someone else pick your hotel, check out websites like Priceline.com and Hotwire.com, where you can bid on discounted hotel rooms. The catch? You don’t actually find out the name of the hotel until you’ve already paid for it. But you do get to pick the location, number of stars and price per night (excluding taxes), so it’s not a total crapshoot. If you’re okay with that, you can save up to 60 percent -- and sometimes much more. And the deals don’t stop there. You can also bid on car rentals and airfares using these sites. Bonus tip: Go to BiddingForTravel.com to get a better idea of what you’re bidding on.
Expand Your Airport Range
In addition to the main airports, be sure to check flights into regional and neighboring ones as well. If you’re headed to Chicago, compare flights to its O’Hare and Midway International Airports, since flights to Midway are often much cheaper (even when you factor in transportation to and from the airport). Go to AlternateAirports.com for a list of all major and regional US airports.
Let Someone Else Do the Legwork
Unlike other travel search engines, Airfarewatchdog.com has actual humans (rather than automated systems) scouring the web for the latest in travel deals, so you’ll never go to book a deal only to find that it’s no longer available. But don’t discount a good old-fashioned travel agent either. (Yeah, remember those?) A travel agent can not only tell you when the best time is to book, but, unlike a search engine, they can actually help you figure out the best deal for you. Yes, those travel websites can calculate the cheapest fare, but they won’t factor in whether enduring a four-hour layover to save $50 is worth it to you. Plus, travel agents can translate the fine print for you to ensure you don’t end up getting screwed by cancellations or delays. (Note: If you do use a travel website, read that fine print carefully or you may find that when the airline cancels your flight to Jamaica, you forfeit your entire trip -- without a refund.)
Keep in mind that prices fluctuate regularly. If you check the fares on Monday, only to find they have nearly doubled by Tuesday, don’t immediately rush to book before the fares go up again. Chill out. Give it a few days -- chances are, the fares will drop once more. If you do find yourself suckered into buying a pricey ticket, register it with Yapta.com and you’ll be entitled to a refund should the fare drop. (Sorry, the site doesn’t offer the same service for hotels.)
Time It Right
If you can wait until the last minute to book (as in, a week or a few days before), you may score a great deal on hotels, airlines and rental cars, since they unload their unbooked rooms, seats and cars for heavily discounted prices then. To get the best deals on flights no matter how far in advance you book, check fares on Tuesday afternoons -- that’s when many airlines post their sale fares for the week.
Many hotel chains offer special deals for their members, like the chance to earn free nights, redeemable at any time (even peak season). Register on their sites for free.
Leave at unpopular times, like the crack of dawn or late in the afternoon. Or endure a layover, which is often cheaper than flying direct.
Tweet Your Way to a Deal
Think Twitter and Facebook are only good for telling the world you’re single? Think again. Many hotels, airlines and cruise lines post specials exclusively on their Facebook pages or host Twitter-only sales. So start following your favorite airline or hotel chain (or better yet, follow them all) to a deal.
Mix Business and Pleasure
Hotels that cater to corporate crowds empty out on weekends and holidays, so rates are often lower then. Sure, the amenities might include a conference room instead of a spa -- but with the cash you save, you may not need that massage after all.
Nestperts: CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT, consumer advocate and editor of Elliott .org; JOHN E. DISCALA, founder of the popular travel site JohnnyJet.com; KARA WILLIAMS, cofounder of family travel site TheVacationGals.com
See More: How to , Travel for Two