Looking to get away this spring break? You may be in for a deal.
With consumers sharply curtailing spending because of the recession, airlines and hotels have been slashing prices.
Low fares that seemed a distant memory last year, such as $99 coast-to-coast tickets, are possible again. And though January through early March traditionally are slow travel months, with reduced fares and hotel rates in off-season destinations, this year's discounts are being extended to as late as May.
"This is probably one of the best spring breaks this decade," said Rick Seaney, the chief executive of FareCompare.com. "We haven't seen these prices in years."
Here's how Seaney and other travel professionals recommend taking advantage of today's best offers:
Go somewhere else
Your typical spring break destinations, such as Cancun, Mexico, Jamaica and Miami, aren't as much of a bargain as other travel spots, according to Patrick Evans, marketing communications coordinator at STA Travel, a travel agency for students. "Bookings are still strong for those top three destinations," he said.
But if you're open to an alternative experience, perhaps Europe, you could find better deals. "International flights have been hit worse than domestic," Seaney said. High fuel surcharges and unfavorable exchange rates turned off many travelers.
But things have changed: Oil prices have eased and the dollar buys more overseas than it did a year ago.
"Some European countries that were out of reach for student budgets last year may now be doable," said Atle Skalleberg, vice president of marketing at StudentUniverse.com, a travel agency that caters to college students and faculty.
Use online tools
A wide range of tools are available online to help you find the best fares and hotel rates.
One popular service is the "flexible search" option available on most travel search engines sites, including Kayak.com and Orbitz.com. The tool shows you how prices vary for dates around the time you want to travel. For example, you may find a better deal if you leave Saturday morning instead of on Friday.
Many sites now also show you fare history (whether prices are trending down or up), and promise to alert you of changes.
Let the travel gurus keep track of deals for you. Sites such as FareCompare.com, AirfareWatchdog.com and TravelZoo.com keep tabs on the latest promotions, with tips on how to take advantage of the deals.
Book in advance
Even if you plan to travel to in-demand destinations such as Cancun, you can still reduce the price of your ticket by flying on Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday, typically slower travel days, Seaney said.
It also helps if you purchase your ticket at least 14 days in advance.
"The lowest fares generally have restrictions, like a 14-day advance purchase or a Saturday night stay," said Debra Pereira, operations manager at Vayama.com, a search engine for international travel.
So don't delay.
Grab a student discount
Finally, if you're a college student, it's worth checking out travel sites that cater specifically to you: STATravel.com and StudentUniverse.com. These sites negotiate discounts with airlines for students.
How much of a discount you receive will depend on demand for your itinerary. But it's worth a look. In a recent search for a Chicago-Miami trip, leaving March 13 and returning March 22, round-trip fares on Orbitz started at $355. On STA Travel, tickets were as low as $327.