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How you can save on travel by outsmarting ever-changing prices

How you can save on travel by outsmarting ever-changing prices
Don't expect the moon when searching for bargain airfares. But there are strategies you can use to avoid overpaying. (David Zalubowski / AP)

The April 30 "On the Spot" column talked about why travel costs fluctuate widely. It attributed (blamed?) this to/on dynamic pricing, which sounds like something so vital you wouldn't want to miss it. If you're booking travel, trust me, you won't but not because it benefits your pocketbook.

The price of almost every travel product varies according to demand and availability. For those who have no control over, say, when Aunt Agnes dies and you must fly to Illinois for the funeral, the price you'll pay for a last-minute ticket won't lift your spirits. In fact, it feels like kind of a racket.

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But Oskar Bruening put it into perspective for me. He is a co-founder of Peek, which provides booking software for tours and activities.

He knows that you still operate a tour on Monday even if only five people have reserved it because, come Saturday, that number may swell many times over.

"You can't have those cheap prices early on," he said, "if you don't charge more later."

How, then, do we find those "early on" prices? And if we've missed that window, how do we offset our slowness or our set of circumstances to keep down our costs?

Here are some ideas:

Pay in advance. Hotel rooms are a highly perishable commodity. To ensure they don't die on the vine, hoteliers are offering travelers a chance to pay in advance and save significantly.

Let's say, for instance, you want to stay June 10-12 at Le Méridien on Battery Street in San Francisco. If you pay in advance for an executive nonsmoking room, your rate will be $169.

That price comes at a cost: It's nonrefundable, and you'll be charged a fee if your plans change. If you don't want to box yourself in? You're welcome to pay $325 a night, which gives you free cancellation until June 6, free Internet and a drink voucher, which you may need if you end up paying almost double for this 413-square-foot room.

You're also seeing this with rental cars, and occasionally with airport parking.

Go opaque. If you're a roll-of-the-dice kind of traveler, you can save big on rental cars, hotel rooms and airline tickets with one of the opaque sites such as Priceline or Hotwire. You don't know the rental car company/hotel/ airline name and, in the latter case, the schedule, but you can get substantial savings if you're willing to venture into the unknown.

Go when the weather is crummy. "Crummy" depends on your tolerance level. August in Palm Springs may not seem optimal; in fact, the high on Aug. 21 last year, the coolest day that month, was a brisk 98. Every other day was well over 100, including a 116 reading on Aug. 15.

January or February may be more to your liking, with mostly 60s or 70s.

That's when you'd want to go in 2018. For a Feb. 10-12 stay, you would pay $814 (not including taxes and fees) for two nights for two adults and for two children, ages 10 and 8, at the Avalon Hotel & Bungalows.

But if you're 10 and 8, you may not care if it's 100 in the shade as long as there's a pool, which there is at the Avalon (and pretty much every other hotel in any U.S. desert city). Your stay then drops to $558 for two nights, not including taxes and fees.

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You adapt your activities to the weather. Anything that's not a pool but is outside is best in the morning. Swimming later in the day will wear out the little tykes, who should sleep well and leave you a little adult time.

Check the calendar to see what else is going on. You might think that Vegas, in a post-Christmas slump, would welcome you with open arms. It might, if you didn't pick Jan. 9-12, because that's the Consumer Electronics Show next year and about 165,000 people are expected, according to the Vegas convention calendar.

Likewise, hotel rates often go up in early December in New York City, when people flock there to shop, or around spring break in many warm-weather destinations when the inexpensive hotels you might reserve are filled with college students who are majoring in party.

Look for coupons. Google "car rental promo codes." Using a promo code from RetailMeNot.com, the cost of a one-week fictional rental of an economy car at Denver's airport dropped its lowest price from $557 (a prepay) to $501.

Twenty-five-percent-off coupons are not unusual. (If you print out your boarding pass, check to see whether it contains parking coupons.)

Let someone rent your car while you're gone. Cars are a little bit like conference rooms. You need them when you need them and when you don't, they just sit there. Turo and TravelCar, both of which have L.A.-area locations, let you rent your car to other travelers.

It's one way to defray your vacation costs while you're gone. TravelCar also gives you free airport parking.

Car owners sometimes use this rental process to acquire a nicer car than they might ordinarily be able to afford.

Avoid the surge charge. If you are an Uber ride-sharing fan, you know that surge pricing can cost you. Common sense tells you that a Sunday night at LAX could be one of those times, but you also could use an app, such as Cut the Surge, to know when to chill.

I haven't tried it, but I have checked to see if surge pricing was in effect near my office (it was, up to 1.8X). So I decided to sit here, finish the column and take Uber later if need be. Because not spending any money is the ultimate savings.

Try Yapta. Airline algorithms are so complicated that no mere mortal can figure them out, although we know some general stuff: Expect sky-high holiday fares. Look for fare relief midweek when business execs usually aren't flying.

But you hear all sorts of "buy xx number of days out and you'll win big." Because those formulas change so often, it seems doubtful that there is a perfect day to buy — 45 days out or 54 or 114.

What you can do is ensure that you don't pay too much. Yapta lets you track flights before you buy and promises to help you get a refund after you buy.

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How do you deal with the shifting sands of travel product pricing? What are you favorite money-saving tips? I promise to share them. Send them to travel@latimes.com with the subject line Saving Money. Include your name and city of residence. Your savings today means you could soon be on the road again.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot respond to every inquiry.

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