Star-Telegram 11/02/08 - Star-Telegram
Travel expenses don't have to be sky-high

If your 401(k) just did a swan dive ó and whose didnít? ó you might be considering putting your vacation plans on ice. But armed with this list of strategies and tips, youíll save so much money, it wonít even feel like youíre spending money if you do decide to travel.

Begin with the end result in mind, not the end. "I tell friends and family to sit down with a blank slate," said Carl Schwartz, chief travel officer for Cheapflights.com, "then let price be the determining factor." So if you want to relax on a beach, donít automatically decide that itís Mexico or nada. Look at the available spectrum and choose what fits your budget.

Bonus tip: Airfares to Hawaii have been dropping. I recently found a $383 round-trip fare on Continental from Los Angeles to Honolulu for Nov. 5-12.

Look for coupons and promo codes. Bargain hunters of any stripe know they can do this when shopping online, whether for clothes or ink-jet cartridges, just by Googling "coupons" and "promo codes." Do the same with travel. You can also try MyBargainBuddy.com or search the site for travel providers such as Travelocity, Orbitz or Expedia.

Bonus tip: The entertainment books of coupons, which offer discounts on restaurants and attractions, will pay for themselves if youíre staying in one spot for a while. Newcomer SavingsonArrival.com offers printable coupons for your destination city (or might; itís still growing).

Donít focus solely on airfare. Remember that the cost of accommodations can take an even bigger bite out of your vacation budget. 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 or Vacation Exchange Network.

Bonus tip: For the shorter term, accrue frequent-stayer points at a favorite hotel group. (And if youíre slow to accumulate points, use a program in which the points donít expire, says Don Berg, vice president of loyalty programs for InterContinental Hotels Group, whose points, coincidentally, donít expire.)

When you do focus on airfare, look at the big picture. The rules of the booking game change constantly, 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; and sign up for airlinesí e-savers e-mails.

Bonus tip: If your dates arenít 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 the joy out of budget travel.