The Army calls it, "rest and recreation." You may think of it as "getting away from it all." Whatever the term, annual vacations can gobble up a large economic outlay--as much as 10% of your gross income. But like many aspects of your financial life, bargains are to be had if you do your homework and plan and shop with care.
Picture the grandeur of the Great Wall, the power of the Grand Canyon, the serenity of the Great Lakes, the romance of the Grand Canal. Your chance of stepping into these scenes increases significantly with planning. And the planning itself can turn into a recreational experience if you approach it as a year-round learning adventure.
Read and clip newspaper travel sections. They're full of articles describing hideaway bargains along with advice on arrangements. Read travel guides, magazines and newsletters. Compare prices. Visit a travel agency. Ask questions. Spirit away brochures--and read them. But read them with care. What the big type promises, the fine print may take away. Get your friends to share their advice on destinations, cruise ships, airlines and hotels, so that when your vacation approaches, you'll be ready to make decisions.
Make reservations as soon as you set the dates and know when you are going. Procrastination can cost money. Reduced rates are often available only well in advance of actual travel dates. Booking in advance increases your chances of getting the hotel you want, flights you prefer and seats you like.
One excellent way to save money is to travel in the off-season. For example, spring and fall in the southern U.S. can be delightful. The crowds are absent, and accommodations that may have been pricey during the high season may be available at reduced rates. The same is true of winter in Europe.
So take your trip to Italy over the Thanksgiving holiday. Plan to be in the British Isles in October. Spend a month in Paris in winter or early spring. Go skiing late in the season. If you must vacation in the traditional getaway months of July and August, go where the crowds aren't. While New Yorkers are on the New Jersey and Long Island beaches, tourists can have Manhattan pretty much to themselves. It's easy to get around and theater tickets are readily available.
Summer is the time to explore the Pacific Northwest, up-state New York, Michigan, historic Civil War battlefields in Virginia and the Carolinas and the museums and festivals of many major cities.
Unless you're a travel snob, skip the "in" resorts and opt instead for an equally attractive but less fashionable nearby resort.
A friend who loves the Caribbean abandoned the well-known posh resorts for Margarita Island, off the coast of Venezuela. She purchased an all-inclusive Margarita package--air fare, luxury hotel room, daily breakfast and two evening dinners--at $499 per person for a double-occupancy room for eight days and seven nights--a fraction of what similar "chic" facilities would have cost.
One of the best services your travel agent can provide is to untangle the air-fare web. Airlines often have multiple rates for the same seat. The trick, then, is to find the lowest rate possible. For this, you have to shop. Reduced fares are commonly found as part of package tours and from consolidators who buy international tickets in bulk and resell them.
If you have a home computer and you travel frequently, consider a subscription to Prodigy, a joint service of IBM and Sears. With a modem, you can explore airline schedules and prices and make your own air, hotel and rental car reservations. The toll-free number for information is (800) 822-6922. If you are attending a convention, there may be substantial airline and hotel discounts which suggest taking a spouse along for a short vacation before and after the conference. Inquire about this when making convention plans.
Some airlines offer coupon books or senior "club" programs that provide savings and many offer reduced fares for children. Frequent-flier programs are still around, but the rewards are narrowing and frustrating restrictions apply. My advice: collect your points, but don't count on them to make a big dent in your vacation travel costs.
With many hotels booked at less than capacity, you can often get substantial savings simply by asking questions. In addition to the regular rate, there may be corporate, weekend, senior, family and group rates, such as those offered by the American Assn. of Retired Persons and the American Automobile Assn.
Don't let the hotel assign a luxury-priced room if all you need are standard accommodations. Don't pay for resort facilities unless you intend to use them. Avoid expensive room service. Increasingly, hotels offer reduced-rate package A hotel labeled 'first class' may not have a private bath. deals, particularly for weekends and at certain times of the year.
When traveling in Europe, pay careful attention to the hotel-rating system. A hotel labeled "first class" may not have a private bath. Ask your travel agent to check the Hotel & Travel Index. And for off-the-beaten track hotels and pensiones, check a standard travel guide, which can provide alternatives to luxury hotels.
There are other programs that promise to cut hotel bills: rebates, voucher programs, certificates and travel clubs. Some offer half-price rates. Since discount programs come and go, a good guide is Consumer Reports Travel Letter. For information write: CRTL, P.O. Box 51366, Boulder, Colo. 80321-1366. Cost is $37 for 12 monthly issues.
Greater numbers of people will take cruises this year. The market is growing so quickly that most operators keep adding ships. Economically, cruising is for couples, since the single add-on can be almost equal to the fare per passenger. One sure way to save on special deals and still get the accommodations you want is to book far in advance. Another avenue to substantial savings is to join a cruise club through your travel agent. Yet another way to save is to book within a few weeks of the scheduled sailing. One organization offering discounts of 10% to 50% is: Spur of the Moment Tours & Cruises, 10780 Jefferson Blvd., Culver City 90230. It's also worthwhile to peruse cruise guidebooks available in bookstores and through some libraries. They, too, offer money-saving hints.
Just as airline and hotel rates are not always what they seem at first glance, so, too, you need to study car-rental rates carefully. Be sure you understand the agreement and what you are going to be charged for fuel. Look for discounts and the conditions that apply. Attendants usually ask if I am eligible for discounts (from membership in AARP or AAA) and suggest the lower rate. Check out plans such as National's Emerald Club, which has a $50 membership fee that pays itself off quickly if you rent cars frequently.
As a form of protection, it's a good idea to charge your trip on a credit card. In the event that you don't get promised services, you can dispute the charge when it appears on your credit card bill. Many complaints about tours arise because the passenger failed to read the advertisements, brochures and contracts. A package tour may provide only transportation and hotels. Or, it may be one of several variations of the escorted tour, with guides for day-time sight-seeing and other services.
It is essential that you read the fine print and conditions clauses carefully to determine what is included and what is not. Otherwise, you may be in for some surprises. Look for extra charges and penalties. It also is a good idea to "unbundle" the tour package. Price air fare, hotels and other services individually. It will help you determine whether your package really is a bargain.
Despite all the glowing promises of sweepstakes and vacation certificates, there's nothing free in this world. Your antennae should go up when you get a mail or telephone offer of a "free" vacation. These offers may actually cost money. The goal usually is to sell you a time-share condo or some other product or service. If you're interested in the product, you may want to take a chance. Otherwise, beware.
The Better Business Bureau reports numerous instances of abuse, hidden costs and misrepresentation. Never give out your credit-card number to those operators and contact your local BBB or state attorney general before accepting mail or telephone offers. Ask your local Better Business Bureau for a copy of "Tips on Travel Packages." It contains checklists to help you. For a copy, send a self-addressed, stamped, legal-size envelope to: Better Business Bureau of the Southland, P.O. Box 970, Colton, Calif. 92324.