With the weak dollar, record gas prices and fears of a recession, it's not surprising that many Americans are rethinking one of life's great pleasures: summer vacation.
But once you travel, it's not something you give up easily.
As Christine Delise, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, puts it: "Maybe it means giving up Starbucks or eating on the cheap for a week. People are going to make sacrifices -- but what they are not going to sacrifice is their summer vacation."
In celebration of the summer vacation season that officially starts this weekend, here are 20 tips to help you recession-proof your holiday.
Cruise lines, airlines, hotels and travel companies are constantly offering deals at the last minute when inventory doesn't sell out. Sometimes, they will bundle them into nicely priced packages that include, for example, air and hotel. Sign up for e-mail alerts from your preferred service providers or check out Web sites like Orbitz, TravelZoo, Cruise Critic and Budget Travel.
TAKE A CRUISE
Consider cruising instead of flying. It's often cheaper, especially in Europe right now with the weak dollar. How much cheaper? This one I've tested firsthand. Last fall, my husband and I took a round-trip five-night cruise from Baltimore to Bermuda for $1,557; compare that with $1,086 we spent on airfare for a two-night respite a few months earlier. And the latter, of course, didn't include lodging, meals or entertainment. You do the math. (A cautionary note: If you book a European-based ship, the fare is paid in U.S. dollars, but onboard expenses are tallied in euros, which can add a ding to the wallet.)
3. Give credit its due
Use your credit card to maximum advantage. When we're in the U.S., we use Southwest's VISA card to get free tickets on the airline we use most often domestically. When we're overseas, we switch to our Capital One card because it is one of the few that doesn't charge an international transaction fee, typically two to five percent of the amount of the purchase.
4. Look after you book
Even if you've booked a hotel or car rental in advance, keep shopping. Erik Torkells, editor of Budget Travel and Girlfriend Getaways magazines, reserved a car in Raleigh, N.C., recently and when he checked prices a week before his trip, he discovered that the rental cost was $25 less per day.
"Same car, same company," he says.
Rental car companies don't require a deposit, so he canceled his first reservation and made another at the lower price. Depending on fees and penalties, the strategy can also work with hotels and airfare.
5. Feel the heat
For summer getaways, check out hot destinations like Florida, the Arizona desert and the Caribbean, which offer off-season deals this time of year.
6. Be loyal guests
Always join hotel loyalty programs. At Omni Hotels, just for being a member, you get a free breakfast beverage delivered to your room. As Torkells notes: "So many now give you free stuff or you get express check-in. I stayed at a Wyndham recently and got Peanut M&Ms; and a half-bottle of red wine. I was in heaven."
7. Ask for extras
When it comes to travel, Torkells says it's a "negotiator's economy." That's especially true if you're traveling as a group, which comes with its own purchasing power. "People like perks," he says. Instead of angling for a cheaper hotel rate, ask for free parking, a complimentary round of drinks, tennis court privileges or an extra room that can be used as social central.
8. Rent, don't reserve
Check out house or apartment rentals, especially in Europe. They're often less expensive than hotels, particularly if it's a group travel situation. Homeaway.com is a good place to start. It has worldwide listings ranging from a villa in Honolulu to a farmhouse in Tuscany to a beachfront home in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla. The site also has a "special offers" tab. One recent deal: for $995 a week, a two-bedroom waterfront cottage that sleeps five on an island off of Maine.
9. Reposition your trip
Consider a repositioning cruise. Not familiar with them? Ships "reposition" when they are moved, for instance, from Alaska to the Mexican Riviera or from the Caribbean to Europe. Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of cruisecritic.com, calls them the "cheapest best deal in cruising." A 14-night trip can cost as little as $499. Possible downsides: few entertainment options and as many as seven consecutive days at sea. "It's not for everyone," Spencer Brown cautions. Repositioning cruises occur in the spring and fall so it might be worth bumping your summer vacation into the fall months.
10. Go with the crowd
If you're determined to cruise this summer, consider traveling with family and friends. If you have a group that books at least eight cabins based on double occupancy, one passenger travels for free or the benefit can be spread around for the common good.
11. Ride the rails
Traveling by rail can be fun - and cheap, too. BargainBox.com, updated daily, offers an array of discounted train deals worldwide. Want to experience California? Consider a California Rail Pass, good for seven days over a 21-day period for $159. Kids ages 2 to 15 pay just $80.
12. Pack lightly
If you're flying this summer, be aware that a host of airlines, starting this month, began charging $25 for a second checked bag. Also, be certain to weigh your luggage after you pack. Many airlines charge fees as high as $100 for bags that weigh more than 50 pounds.
13. Mind your fuel
Not only are airfares on the rise, but, on top of that, airlines have tacked on fuel surcharges to offset higher fuel costs. Given that double-whammy, figure out whether it would be cheaper to drive to your destination.
To calculate the cost of gas, visit AAA at fuelcostcalculator.com. The online tool also provides current average gas prices throughout the planned route.
14. Call in your bets
When using your cell phone, it's usually cheaper to text-message. When in Europe, AAA suggests purchasing a calling card there. If you're going to be away for weeks at a time, consider getting a personal online number through Skype. Anyone can dial your number from a phone or cell phone and you pick up wherever you are in the world. Meanwhile, the caller only pays standard local rates, not international ones. Your cost: $18 for three months.
15. Don't pay to park
Check out ParkSleepFly.com if you're going to stay overnight near an airport before you fly. This worked out great for us when we were away recently for three weeks, because we didn't have to pay to park our car in the long-term lot. The hotel let us park our car there for free for two weeks, charging just $5 a day after that. Participating hotels also throw in complimentary 24-hour shuttle service to and from the airport.
16. Dig for discounts
If you're a repeat customer with a touring company, you may be entitled to discounts. Some companies will also send you freebies, such as toiletry kits, hand luggage and logo wear.
17. Count the hours
Car rentals by the day can be expensive. Some companies, including Hertz and Enterprise, now have hourly rentals in major U.S. cities. This may not be suitable for every traveler, but it's an option.
18. Navigate your way
If you do rent a car, having a built-in navigational system can save time and money - you won't have to waste fuel trying to find a place to turn around. Of course, rental cars with GPS tend to cost more, so bringing your own adds to the savings.
19. Fill up midweek
With gasoline prices at a premium, AAA suggests buying gas at independent stations and during midweek, when it's cheaper. Avoid stations on highways or near highway exits and airports. Also, ask your hotel if it's offering gas rebates or prepaid gasoline cards. If you do take a road trip, you'll want to find the best gas prices. Online, Mapquest and GasBuddy will pull up a list of stations, ranked by price.
20. Branch out
Low-cost air carriers are huge in Europe right now, criss-crossing the region with thousands of routes. If you're going to be in, say, London and want to hop over to Barcelona, it's worth checking out. Right now, one-way tickets on Ryanair from London to several dozen European cities start at just five pounds, about $10, including fees and taxes. More than 40 budget carriers list their fares on flycheapo.com or you can go directly to the carrier's Web site.
The average travel budget for two adults traveling together in the United States is $244 per day for lodging and meals, according to the 2008 edition of AAA's Annual Vacation Costs Survey.
The survey indicates that the average cost for lodging in the country is $164 per night, based on double occupancy. For two adults traveling and dining together, AAA Mid-Atlantic travel experts recommend budgeting a minimum of $80 a day for meals. The cost is based on dining at full-service restaurants and does not include tips or beverages.
The most economical cities for vacationers this summer? Tulsa, Okla., and Albuquerque, N.M., each with an estimated daily food and lodging cost of $179. In Maryland, the average price for meals and lodging is roughly $258 a day, $14 above the national average.
Total Marylanders projected to travel 50 miles or more from home this Memorial Day holiday: 713,520, a 0.9 percent decrease over last year
Total projected to drive: 596,098, a 0.7 percent decrease
Total projected to fly: 83,091, a 1.2 percent decrease
Total projected to travel by train, bus or other mode of transportation: 34,311, a 3 percent decrease
Source: AAA Mid-Atlantic