No vacation is perfect. But following these tips can help ensure that in 2016, you’ll be on the road to a smooth, memorable holiday.
1) Get out your crystal ball: Family wedding? Conference? Business trip? Put the dates and places on your calendar. Get your travel companions to input their dates, then overlay the calendars; printouts help. The gaps are your travel windows. If you’re longing to go to a date-specific event (the Aspen Ideas Festival or the tribal Sing-Sing in Papua New Guinea), be sure you check this year’s dates. (Conversely, be sure you aren’t landing in Buenos Aires on the city’s saint-day holiday, when the streets are empty and museums are closed.) The earlier you request your time off from work, the more likely you’ll get the dates you want.
2) Make your hit list: Actually, make a few: one for once-in-a-lifetime trips (penguin-watching in Antarctica), one for that-would-be-fun trips (the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), and another for close-to-home getaways (swimming with the manatees in Crystal River, Florida). Get a rough idea of how much time you need for a reasonable visit (five days in Amsterdam makes a decent visit, but anything less than two weeks in Asia isn’t worth it). Then spend a few minutes online to figure out roughly what each trip will likely cost ($500 for Crystal River for two if you drive; $12,000 per person for two weeks with the penguins). Once you’ve figured out which trips fit both your schedule and your budget, you’re ready for the next step.
3) Get ready to pounce: The last-minute deals of years past are largely gone, swept away by companies that need to forecast revenues early in the year. For cruise lines, hoteliers, packagers, tour operators — and even airlines — this often means January incentives that reward early birds. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen airfare to Africa for $800 and Cartagena for $175 and steep hotel discounts (as much as 50 percent). Through February, cruise lines are in “wave season,” when they offer incentives like unlimited onboard Internet access, specialty dining packages and low deposits. Some of the special prices now being offered will apply only through spring. But others are good far later in the year. Since you’ve already identified when you can go and what you’re willing to spend, you’ll be ready to jump on that 24-hour flash sale.
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4) Track those deals: So how do you find those sales? Sign up for them. Smartertravel.com sends a daily email on the latest airfare and package deals, along with articles written by some of the consumer travel industry’s most knowledgeable experts. AirfareWatchdog, its sister company, alerts you to general deals and those on specific routes. (Unlike most sites that lean entirely on computer algorithms, AirfareWatchdog has actual humans who test the deals before sending out alerts.) Another sister company, Cruise Critic, sends out alerts on cruise deals.
When it comes to snagging a deal on a business-class fare to a faraway destination like Asia, Travelzoo is one of the few sites that regularly highlights these; you can find them on their own tab under airfares or sign up for TravelZoo’s deal alerts, which also include lodging, tours and even golf specials. SkyLuxTravel and Fare Buzz also highlight business class deals. Jetsetter and LuxuryLink focus on luxury hotel sales.
[Tip: If you find the regular newsletters more irritating than entertaining, you can subscribe to Unroll.me and have the emails combined in one daily email or “rollup.”]
5) Get with the program: Even if you don’t travel frequently for business or stick with a single hotel brand, it’s worth signing up for hotel loyalty programs. These often offer member-only discounts far deeper than you can get through AAA or AARP and may include extras, like free Wi-Fi, for members. Even value-oriented lodgings like the 11 brands of Choice Hotels (including Clarion and Comfort Inn) are worth collecting; that roadside stay in the U.S. can lead to a center-city hotel in an expensive European capital. And at booking sites like Hotels.com, any stay booked through the site can add up to free nights.
Cruise lines offer loyalty programs with perks that can include free laundry and Internet minutes.
When it comes to airline points, don’t scoff. True, you may not be able to get the nonstop business-class seats to Paris on the exact dates you want. But if you’re willing to change planes, be flexible about your dates or overnight in a city along your route, you often can land free tickets. When the price of frequent flier tickets to Asia is an extra day and a $120 airport hotel stay, it can be worth saving the $3,000 you’d spend for two round-trip tickets.
6) Avoid prime time: Traveling out of season is nearly always cheaper than going during school holidays. But a vacation isn’t just about money; it’s about the experience. Who really wants to be stuck in a long line for the Vatican Museums in the mid-summer swelter? Or cram onto a jammed Spring Break beach in Cancún?
7) Focus on what really matters — to you. Don’t become the Bridezilla of your holiday. Think about the experiences that have proven memorable in the past, and let that guide your planning. If you spend all your time out seeing the town, focus more on your hotel’s location than the size of your room. If you love languishing at lunch with friends, plan to skip the second archaeological site. You can’t do everything, but you should do what you’ll cherish most. If a helicopter ride to a glacier is a lifelong dream, save that Alaska trip for a year when you can afford it.
8) Get input from the gang: Don’t assume you know what’s right for others. Whether you’re planning a river cruise with your coffee klatch, a reunion or a driving trip with the kids, let everyone have a say in the plan, says Eileen Ogintz, author of the TakingtheKids blog. “If you consider what the kids want to do, they will be more cooperative with your picks,” she recommends. “Alternate everyone’s top picks so each person gets first choice at least one day.”
If you’re traveling with adults, be sure to talk about the budget well in advance. When it comes to a multigenerational group with different interests and needs, consider a cruise where you can go your separate ways during the day and meet up for dinner. And because meals are already included, you’ll avoid awkwardness over settling the check.
9) Talk to a human being: If you’re booking anything but the most routine airline seat or rental car, talking with a human being can be faster and more effective than sending a series of emails. A cruise agent can help you choose the cruise line best for your particular needs — such as a stateroom near an elevator for your aging mom — and key you in to upgrades and deals. A conversation directly with a hotel may get you a better price. A phone call to your airline’s frequent flier desk often lands a free ticket on an obscure route that doesn’t show up online. And when it comes to that once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa, you definitely want to talk with a knowledgeable expert who understands the options and your expectations.
10) Leave your work behind: Don’t let yourself be one of the 45 percent of Americans who didn’t take a single vacation day last summer, according to travel intelligence site Skift. Just as bad are those who take the time off — and then spend most of their time answering work emails and phone calls. Instead, give clients plenty of notice that you’ll be out, and attend to any foreseeable needs in advance. Set up a plan for someone else to handle urgent matters that might crop up. If you absolutely must stay in touch, limit yourself to daily check-ins at a prearranged time so that your workplace knows what to expect. The Harvard Business Review suggests setting up a vacation email address for urgent matters, and planning at least some time when you’re entirely off the grid.
11) Seize the day: Kids grow up fast. Grandparents age. The world and the places in it change — as Miami traveler Nancy Frehling has learned watching news of unrest in Egypt and Mali, both visited long before the current woes. “If I hadn’t seized the moment, I would have missed the magic of the pyramids and the mystery of Timbuktu. Carpe diem!”
Find more vacation tips at Jane Wooldridge’s travel blog, Fivestarstounderthestars.com