Travel savings aren’t always what they seem to be. That unbelievable $99 airfare to Europe? It may omit baggage fees, seat-selection charges and other costs. That tropical resort that’s offering a half-off sale? Check the deal’s dates—if it’s the rainy season, you might spend more than half your trip stuck inside. It’s not just the eye-catching advertised deals that can be deceptive, either—many travel costs are purposely made confusing by the travel industry.
You may be experienced enough to avoid some of the traps—such as the “low” hotel rates on third-party travel sites that often can be beat by going to a hotel’s own website or calling the hotel directly. But even many experienced travelers are making the following five mistakes when shopping for airfare…hotels…rental cars…and cruises…
Mistake: Booking nonrefundable hotel rooms or rental cars more than a month in advance. The best deals on hotels rooms and rental cars often are not available until quite close to the travel date…and there is a way to give yourself an opportunity to get the best deal without the risk of simply waiting.
What to do: Book refundable hotel rooms and rental-car reservations approximately four to six weeks before your trip—that’s often when the competitive prices begin to appear. Then, if you’re sure of your travel plans, shop for lower nonrefundable prices during the week or so prior to your trip, when very attractive last-minute deals sometimes pop up. Keep checking nonrefundable prices right up to the final day and time when you can cancel the refundable reservation without a penalty. If you find a better nonrefundable price, grab it and then cancel your refundable reservation. Example: I recently saved $150 by canceling a refundable car-rental reservation one day before a trip and booking a nonrefundable last-minute deal instead.
Warning: This is not an effective strategy with airfare because refundable airline tickets are almost always much more expensive than nonrefundable tickets. As a rule of thumb, airfares tend to be lowest a few weeks prior to departure, though this can vary.
Mistake: Paying one-way rental-car pricing for an extended trip. Car-rental agencies often charge much steeper daily rates when travelers return cars to locations other than where the cars were picked up—potentially two to four times as much per day. If you are renting a car only to drive from one city to another, there might be no easy way to avoid these steep rates…but there is a better option if you intend to spend some days driving within a region, as well as some days driving from region to region.
What to do: When you intend to use a rental car within a region for one day or more and also to drive between cities, split the rental between two different cars. That way you pay the high one-way rate only for the day(s) when you actually are driving from town to town. Example: I needed a rental car to drive from Boston to New York City and then to drive around New York for a week. The best one-way rate I could find was slightly more than $150 per day—upward of $1,050 for the seven-day rental. But I found rates of just under $50 per day for an in-town New York City rental from the very same rental company. I rented a car in Boston for one day of one-way travel…dropped that car off at the New York rental desk…immediately picked up a different car…and saved more than $600.
Mistake: Booking a flight through a discount travel site that doesn’t provide key details until after you commit. Some travelers are drawn to Priceline’s Express Deals and Hotwire’s Hot Rate Flight because these sites often offer lower airfares than can be found elsewhere—sometimes 10% or 20% less. The catch is that these sites require travelers to book nonrefundable fares before learning details such as which airline they will be flying and the departure and arrival times. (An eight-hour flight-departure window typically is provided instead.)
There’s a reason these sites do not provide flight details before you book—their flights typically are among the least popular, least convenient flights around. If you’re willing to take a chance to get a big discount, that’s fine, especially if you can be very flexible. But if inconvenient flight times mean that you must use up a vacation day at each end of your trip getting where you’re going, the savings may not be worth the trouble.
What to do: Consider skipping “blind offer” airfare sites.
Mistake: Assuming that you must always book airline tickets online to avoid a phone-booking fee. You may know that many airlines now impose a fee for booking a ticket over the phone rather than online—typically $25 per ticket. (Delta and Southwest do not currently charge a fee for phone booking.) But just because an airline charges this fee does not necessarily mean that you always must pay it to book by phone. Unlike with most airline fees, it often is possible to get phone-booking fees waived.
What to do: If there’s a good reason that you want to book tickets over the phone, call the airline’s reservations number and tell the representative why it would be difficult for you to book your ticket online. Is the airline’s website giving you trouble? Is there something unusual about the tickets you are trying to book that makes them challenging to book through the website (such as booking two tickets but paying for one with frequent-flier miles and the other with a credit card)? Politely ask the rep if he/she will waive the phone-booking fee—more often than not, the rep will do so as long as the caller can point to an online-booking challenge. If a phone rep won’t waive this fee, you haven’t cost yourself anything except a few minutes of time—you can hang up and try to book online or call again and repeat your request to a different phone rep. Exception: Discount airlines including Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit rarely waive phone-booking fees.
Mistake: Comparing cruise itineraries and prices but not cruise line and ship quality. Travelers understand that a $100 room at a Comfort Inn is not necessarily a better deal than a $300 room at the Ritz-Carlton across town—the quality of these hotels will be very different. Yet novice cruisers often fail to consider differences in cruise-line quality when they compare cruise prices. (Some also fail to consider what’s included in the price—some cruise prices include drinks, meals and even transit to and from the port…while others do not.)
What to do: Before booking, know whether you will be cruising on the Ritz-Carlton of cruise lines, on the Comfort Inn or on something in-between.
Examples: Crystal, Seabourn and Silversea are high-end cruise lines…Azamara, Cunard, Regent Seven Seas, Oceania and Viking are above average…AIDA, Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Holland America, MSC, Norwegian, P&O, Princess, Pullmantur and Royal Caribbean are the next level down…and although there tend not to be budget cruise lines that are the equivalent of a budget hotel chain, older ships from some of the cruise lines in this last category tend to have lower rates, possibly because of less impressive amenities and/or less popular or shorter routes.
Helpful: Space-to-passenger ratio is one way to estimate the quality of a cruise ship. Divide the ship’s “gross tonnage”—a measurement of a ship’s usable space, not its weight—by the number of passengers it can carry. (Tonnage should be available on the cruise line’s website. If not, call the cruise line and ask.) If the result is 30 or 40 or higher, it’s likely a spacious, comfortable ship…if it’s close to 20, it’s likely a nice-but-not-luxurious ship…if it’s around 10 or below, passengers probably are packed in like sardines.