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6 Tips for Saving on a Warm-Weather Winter Vacation
A tropical vacation can be affordable if you're strategic about where you go and when you book.
A wintertime getaway to a balmy destination is not out of reach.(Getty Images)
For those of us who must endure brutally chilly winters, the promise of a tropical vacation can feel like a lifesaver to help us survive the season. But when the mercury drops, flight and hotel rates to warm-weather locales such as Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean skyrocket. According to Orbitz Labs data, average nightly accommodation rates in Maui, Hawaii, can cost upward of $440 in January and February, nearly half the price of hotel rates in September. Visiting the Bahamas is just as pricey, with average nightly lodging rates soaring from around $350 in December to nearly $475 in March, according to Orbitz's findings. Fortunately, if you're strategic about where you go and when you book, a wintertime getaway to a balmy destination is feasible, even if you're on a budget.
To get the scoop on scoring the best airfare and lodging deals this winter, U.S. News consulted Patrick Surry, chief data scientist at Hopper, a mobile app that predicts and analyzes airfare, and Expedia travel expert Dave McNamee. Read on to learn how to secure wallet-friendly lodging and airfare rates during the competitive travel season.
Start Tracking Prices Now
"People want there to be a simple solution for finding a deal, but you're fighting against all these computers the airlines have," Surry says. "The best way to get a deal is to track pricing two to three months ahead of your trip," he adds. Several sites and apps, including Hopper, Kayak and Airfarewatchdog.com, allow travelers to set up pricing alerts that track airfare fluctuations, notifying users when it's advantageous to book. By starting early, you'll have a leg up on procrastinators and feel more confident when you do decide to book, knowing how much the rates have fluctuated, if at all.
McNamee suggests using Scratchpad, an Expedia tool that allows users to log their searches across multiple devices (smartphone, tablet and laptop, for example). "With Scratchpad, travelers can start a search on a laptop, continue it on the Expedia app on a smartphone on the subway ride home and review options on a tablet later that night," McNamee says. Plus, you can share your searches with other friends and family, meaning you don’t have to start from scratch every time you log on.
Avoid Traveling Around Christmas and New Year's
According to Surry, flight prices are at their lowest during the first few weeks of December (right after the hectic Thanksgiving travel weekend), the month of January (after New Year's Day) and the beginning of February. Your chances of scoring reasonable flight rates decrease the closer the calendar draws to long weekends tacked on to winter holidays, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Presidents Day, as well as spring break, which typically falls in late February, early March or early April.
Keep an Open Mind
Another one of Surry's top tips: stay flexible. If you're willing to travel mid-week – on a Tuesday, for example – you could save as much as 20 percent on airfare, according to Surry's research. You'll also need to be flexible if you're hoping to take advantage of Cyber Monday deals, Surry says. Cyber Monday, the Monday following the Thanksgiving holiday, often yields a variety of deals offered by online retailers, but airlines and hotel brands get in on the action too, offering discounts on itineraries and resort packages. For instance, in 2015, hotel brands such as Omni and Barceló Hotels & Resorts were a few of the companies that offered discounted rates for travelers willing to book stays within the first few weeks of January. Though it's likely there will also be airfare flash sales, the destinations and itineraries can be unpredictable. But if you've got an open schedule, this could be a prime time to book flights to Europe or the Caribbean, Surry says.
Look for Direct Flights
More often than not, nonstop flights are pricier than those with a layover or two, which is why most budget travelers don't search for direct routes when planning their trips. But according to Surry, knowing the amount of direct flights offered from your home airport can actually save you about 10 percent on average. Destinations with nonstop itineraries are often more competitively priced than harder-to-reach destinations without direct flights, Surry says.
Consider Visiting Florida
According to Surry's research, Florida is home to the most affordable warm-weather getaways this winter. Round-trip flights to top spots such as Orlando, Miami and Fort Lauderdale can be snagged for less than $300 on average. Trips to more exotic locales, such as Cancun, Puerto Rico and Jamaica, are a little more expensive (costing as much as $482 round-trip, on average), but will likely offer plenty of availability due to a high market demand. You can save even more by booking a package, McNamee says. "Destinations, including Cancun, Isla Mujeres, Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen and Tulum feature package savings of more than 25 percent," McNamee says. "Los Cabos, another great destination this season, has package savings of nearly 30 percent," he adds.
If you're looking for a far-flung getaway that you don't have to share with other travelers, you may be out of luck. According to Surry, harder-to-reach spots such as the British Virgin Islands or Dominica will be pricey because of fewer available flights. For more off-the-beaten-path trips, consider Panama, the U.S. Gulf Coast (specifically, the shores of Alabama or Texas) or the Carolinas, Surry suggests.
Catch a Wave Season Deal
If you've got your heart set on a warm-weather winter cruise, wave season is the time to book it. This period, which usually begins just before Christmas or right after the new year begins, is when cruise lines start advertising perks, such as free onboard credits, cabin upgrades or buy one, get one fares to incentivize travelers to book early. Though these deals can save you quite a bit of dough (sometimes thousands of dollars if it's a buy one, get one promotion), the terms and conditions can be a bit murky. For instance, some bonuses may only apply to select itineraries or must be booked within a certain time frame. To ensure you really are scoring a deal, you'll have to compare lines and promotions. A free upgrade may sound enticing, but if it's more expensive than a regular balcony stateroom on a different line, is the deal worth it? Enlisting the help of a cruise travel agent who regularly has access to discounted rates and prepaid perks will also help you confirm you're getting the best bang for your buck.
If you don't see a wave season promotion that entices you, be patient; there may be an even better last-minute deal waiting for you. Start searching 60 to 120 days prior to the cruise departure (the time frame when most cruise lines allow passengers to cancel without penalty) to see if you can score a reduced fare.
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