The Miami Herald 10/29/08 The Miami Herald
How to go without going broke by Catharine Hamm

When the world went to financial hell in a handbasket in the Great Depression, people went to the movies. Today they go to Montana or maybe even Mongolia.

But if your 401(k) just did a swan dive -- and whose didn't? -- you might be considering putting your vacation plans on ice.

It's a personal choice, but you can guess which way we're leaning.

Besides, armed with this list of strategies and tips, you'll save so much money, it won't even feel as though you're spending money.

OK, perhaps a bit of hyperbole there, but none from the experts we've talked to, who will help you wring the last bit of value out of your travel dollar. To wit:

Begin with the end result in mind, not the end. Grammarians might take exception to the phrase ''end result,'' but bargain hunters should not, not if it helps them focus on what they want from their vacation, not where the vacation should be. ''I tell friends and family to sit down with a blank slate,'' said Carl Schwartz, chief travel officer for Cheapflights.com search site, ''then let price be the determining factor.'' So if you want to relax on a beach, don't automatically decide that it's Mexico or ''nada.'' Look at the available spectrum and choose what fits your budget.

Bonus tip: Air fares to Hawaii have been dropping. I recently found a $383 round-trip fare on Continental from Los Angeles to Honolulu for Nov. 5 to 12. I also found a $290 Mexicana fare to Cabo San Lucas from L.A., although it comes with a catch: It's a red-eye with a long layover in Mexico City, raising the question: How much will I suffer for savings?

Look for coupons and promo codes. Bargain hunters of any stripe know they can do this when shopping online, whether it's for clothes or ink jet cartridges, just by Googling ''coupons'' and ''promo codes.'' Do the same with travel. You can also try MyBargainBuddy.com, a site run by self-professed bargain fiend Karen Hoxmeier of Temecula, Calif. Search the site for travel providers such as Travelocity, Orbitz, Expedia and others.

Bonus tip: The Entertainment books of coupons, which offer discounts on restaurants and attractions, will pay for themselves if you're staying in one spot for a while. A newcomer to the crowd, SavingsonArrival.com, offers coupons in your destination city (or might; it's still growing) that you can print.

Don't focus solely on airfare. U.S. consumers have trained themselves to shop for air fares, and that's fine. But remember that the cost of accommodations can take an even bigger bite out of your vacation budget than the cost of your flight. So consider carefully where you'll stay. Look for packages at hotels. (To maintain price integrity, many are offering a free night if you stay three or four.) Or consider renting a condo, which means you might be able to have two or three bedrooms instead of having to rent two or three hotel rooms. Or consider a house swap through organizations such as HomeExchange.com, Vacation Exchange Network and others. And for the adventuresome, there's always CouchSurfing.com, in which you sleep on someone's couch, then return the favor.

Bonus tip: If you're staying a bit, consider a longer-term rental, says Linda Johnson of Long Beach, Calif., who wrote in with her budget tip. Last spring, she spent more than two months in Cornwall, England, in a rented place and spent about $1,000 a month. Compare that with hotel costs in Britain; the State Department's housing allowance for Bristol, for instance, is $274 a night. Multiply that by 30 days, and you're in a world of financial hurt.

Bonus tip No. 2: For the shorter term, accrue frequent-stayer points at a favorite hotel group. (And if you're slow to accumulate points, use a program in which the points don't expire, says Don Berg, vice president of loyalty programs for InterContinental Hotels Group, whose points, coincidentally, don't expire.)

When you do focus on airfare, take a look at the big picture. The rules of the booking game change from day to day and week to week, but here are some standards: Usually you can fly less expensively on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and, sometimes, late on Saturdays; fares generally will be lower a couple of weeks before major holidays or big travel periods; check alternate airports (Oakland instead of San Francisco, Providence, R.I., instead of Boston); and sign up for the airlines' e-savers e-mails.

Bonus tip: If your dates aren't set in stone, try the flexible fare finder on many airline Web sites. For instance, for a US Airways flight to LaGuardia, N.Y., leaving Nov. 13 from L.A. and returning Nov. 20, the fare was $230. But leaving Nov. 25 and returning Nov. 30, it was $918, showing how a holiday can take all the joy out of budget travel.

As you're looking at air fares, calculate the per-capita transportation cost. Sometimes driving can be less expensive than flying, especially now that gas prices are coming down from the stratosphere and flying short distances can be costly. ''I know I've widened my (driving) radius,'' said Rudy Maxa, host of the public television travel series ''Rudy Maxa's World.'' ``Certainly if there are two or three or four people going, it's worth considering.''

Bonus tip: Enterprise offers 50 percent off weekend rentals if you've rented Friday through Monday. Or consider using one of the opaque sites, such as Priceline or Hotwire, for car rentals. As inveterate traveler and Los Angeles Times staffer Sherry Stern notes, ``If you're going to end up with a Chevy Malibu anyway, Alamo's pretty much the same as Avis, so whatever company Priceline sets me up with is OK with me.''

Look out for the little costs that can undo your budget and devise a plan to keep them in check. Getting to and from the airport can cost a pretty penny. Think FlyAway bus to the airport. Think bribing your brother to take you. Think shared ride van (although not inexpensive). Do not think taxi unless you live next to the airport. On the other end, take advantage of public transportation from the airport into town or consider a hotel that has a shuttle. And remember that if you need to board Fido and Fluffy, that's $40 or more a day. (Maybe you could bribe your other brother.)

Bonus tip: If public transportation is available at your destination, don't rent a car. The cost of parking can run as much as $50 a day in some spots (San Francisco), meaning parking the car can cost more than renting it.

Eat, drink and be merry, but don't blow your budget. You can keep your meal costs in check by staying in a place that has a kitchen. Or you might try an all-inclusive resort. That's what Karen Hoxmeier of MyBargainBuddy.com did when she took her family to Jamaica. The all-inclusive resort had enough variety to keep her kids (one teen and two pre-teens) happy and keep their food costs down. Or, if you're on your own, you can check out Restaurant.com, which offers discounts on gift cards. You can use them at home, of course, but you also can use them on the road.

Bonus tip: Eat on the street. Go to farmers markets, or, in foreign countries, eat at food stands (just be careful). Singapore, for instance, inspects for sanitation at what it calls ''hawker centers'' and even has a street food guide (download at www.visitsingapore.com/publish/stbportal/en/home/where to eat/f b experiences/uniquely singapore.html).

Bonus tip No. 2: Tim Zagat, founder of the guides of the same name, gives a thumbs up to prix fixe meals, which he says are becoming more popular. They're like all-inclusive resorts in that they help diners avoid what he calls ``unhappy surprises when the bill comes.''

Timing is everything. You will find bargains in the shoulder season -- that is, the time right before high season starts -- and the off-season -- that is, when everyone else stays home. But that doesn't mean you should feel like the poor little match girl or boy. Often, there are unexpected rewards besides the lack of crowds, says Peter J. Frank, editor in chief of Concierge.com, a travel planning site for affluent travelers. Summer might not be optimal for Baja California, for instance, but, Frank says, the surfing is great for spectators and participants.

Bonus tip: Look for ''troughs'' between seasons, and don't think of them just in terms of weather. Some warm-weather destinations have a lull right after Presidents Day in February but before spring break. Skiers often can find deals in early (but not too early) January.