Money may be tight, but not enough for most of us to forgo a summer vacation.
A recent survey by travel site Orbitz.com found that nearly eight of 10 respondents will be taking a vacation this summer. Some plan to spend more than last year, but nearly half of the 750 people polled vow to keep their travel budget under $1,500.
"They don't have a set destination in mind but say, 'Where can we go that fits within our budget?'" says Jeanenne Tornatore, senior editor at Orbitz.com.
Tornatore says that probably explains why — with airfares up — the top 10 destinations for the summer are all in the United States except one — Cancun, Mexico.
Budget-conscious travelers will be able to find deals, but it won't be easy.
"This summer is about getting a better bad deal," says Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com. "The deals will be few and far between, so don't procrastinate."
Here are some tips:
Expect higher airfares: Rising fuel prices, growing consumer demand and fewer seats because of airline consolidation have pushed airfares higher.
Domestic flights cost 6 percent or so more than a year ago, and international flights have risen more than that, travel experts say.
George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, says airlines can change fares many times during the day, so he recommends setting up fare alerts at one of the online travel sites to notify you by email or Twitter when prices fall.
Plenty of travel sites allow you to compare airfares among airlines. But check airlines' sites as well because they may post even cheaper fares, Hobica says.
"They just want to keep the business to themselves," he says. "They don't want to pay commissions to online travel agencies."
If you are booking far in advance and worry that you might miss out on a lower fare later, consider flying with JetBlue, Southwest Airlines or Alaska Airlines, Hobica says. They will allow you to switch without penalty to another one of their flights if the fare is lower, he says. Plus, they will give you a credit that can be used for future travel, he says.
Break up a trip: You pay about 20 percent more for a nonstop flight, so it's cheaper to use connecting flights, Seaney says.
You also can save money by taking a less direct route or using more than one airline.
For instance, Hobica says a round-trip fare from Dallas to Honolulu can cost $500 more than from Houston to the Hawaii capital. It would be cheaper to get a flight from Dallas to Houston, and then hop a plane to Honolulu, he says.
Similarly, you can save hundreds of dollars by flying from New York to Berlin and then to Paris, rather than going directly from New York to Paris, Hobica says.
"You have to leave plenty of time between connecting flights," he warns.
Most travelers book round-trip tickets with one airline to get more frequent-flier miles or other perks. But travel experts say that it can be cheaper to fly with one airline to your destination and take another carrier back home.
Timing is everything: Cut costs by avoiding peak travel times. Seaney advises scheduling airline departures and returns for the least expensive days — Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Early-morning and evening flights tend to be cheaper, too, he says.
Orbitz found that more people plan to travel in July than in June or August. You can save as much as 6 percent on hotels by staying in June instead of July, Tornatore says. And you'll find more attractive deals for family destinations, such as Orlando, Fla., in mid- to late August when kids head back to school.
Out-of-season destinations: Most people want to go to Aspen, Colo., or the Caribbean in the winter. But travel experts say ski resorts in the summer are inexpensive and have a lot of activities, such as hiking and festivals. June and July tend to be affordable times in the Caribbean, Tornatore says.
City living: Not everyone wants a beach. Big-city fans should time their visits for the weekends, after business travelers and local residents have left town and hotel rates drop.
Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel, says Chicago made her site's list of bargain destinations because of the affordable airfare and attractive hotel rates.
Hoteliers in New York are worried about filling their rooms because so many of their summer customers are from Europe, where the economy is weak, says Clem Bason, president of Hotwire Group, which owns travel-related sites. This could mean some big hotel savings for American travelers to the Big Apple this summer, he says.
For other bargain cities, Bason recommends Washington in August — when Congress and other government workers abandon the city — and Vancouver, British Columbia, as a lower-cost alternative to high-priced Seattle.
Lodging alternatives: To make up for higher airfare, budget-conscious travelers are trying to trim the cost of lodging, Banas says. If they usually go with a four-star hotel, they might opt for three stars, she says, or stay five nights instead of seven.
And they're looking beyond hotels for less expensive accommodations.
"Vacation rentals are getting increasingly popular," she says. Rentals can include flats, villas, vacation homes or even a room in someone's house, she says.
The savings can be sizable compared to a hotel, especially when groups of four or more rent a vacation home. "With a hotel, you can only fit so many people in the room, and then you have to get a second room," she says.
Banas says she recently rented a place in Paris for about 100 euros a day, or half the price of what a much smaller hotel room would cost.
Find rentals at Airbnb.com, SlipKey.com, HomeAway.com and VRBO.com.
Like airfares, hotel rates fluctuate. To avoid getting burned when a rate drops after you made a reservation, consider Tingo.com.
You can book a "Money Back" hotel room on Tingo, which then monitors the hotel and will rebook your room if the price falls. Tingo will do this for savings as little as $1. Savings will be refunded to your credit card after checkout.
Also, don't overlook a hotel's amenities when comparing prices, Tornatore says. It may be worth paying a little more if a hotel offers free breakfast, WiFi or meals for the kids, she says. "With free breakfasts, a family of four can save $50 or $60 a day," she says.
Staying home: The recession gave us the word "staycation," for those who could only afford to vacation in their hometowns.
"Most people don't want to do a staycation," Seaney says, although sticker shock may force them into one.
Financially strapped Marylanders are in luck this summer. The state is hosting a series of events to mark the War of 1812 bicentennial, including an air show next month by the Navy's Blue Angels and the arrival of more than 40 vessels and tall ships in Baltimore. Check out visitmaryland.org for details.