1. Fly on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday. Traveling on off-peak days—and at off-peak times—means lower fares, a less crowded cabin, and a greater chance of snagging those elusive mileage-award seats. Taking two days off for a long weekend? Instead of a Thursday–Sunday or Friday–Monday trip, save money by flying on a Saturday and returning on a Tuesday.
2. Buy airline tickets midday on Tuesdays. When I purchase a domestic ticket, I usually do it on a Tuesday between noon and 3 p.m. Airlines tend to announce fare sales on Monday nights, and other airlines match those sales on Tuesday mornings, explains Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, which means that by 3p.m. on the East Coast and by noon Pacific time, the greatest number of sale tickets has hit the system.
3. Snag mileage-award seats six months ahead or over a weekend. Some people mistakenly think that the trick to using miles is to book award seats the moment a flight is put in the reservation system—often 331 days ahead of departure. Statistically speaking, though, you have the best shot at nabbing seats you want six months before your flight. Airline sites often don’t display all the available award seats, so if you’re not finding what you need, call the mileage-award redemption desk. I’ve gotten award tickets for my family of four several times by following frequent-flier guru Randy Petersen’s advice to phone just after midnight over the weekend: Airlines update their inventory on Fridays and occasionally on Saturdays—changes that go into effect at midnight—yet most people don’t call until Monday, so over the weekend you have more availability and agents will have the time to work with you.
4. Pounce on international business-class fare sales in January and August.There are four periods when business travel slows and airlines drop business-class fares to lure vacationers: Easter, summer, Thanksgiving, and the Christmas/New Year holiday. Lately, airlines have been announcing summer sales early in the new year and winter sales in August. They barely promote these sales, so I keep on top of them by subscribing to JoeSentMe.com ($49 per year).
5. Get into a sold-out hotel. Find out when cancellation penalties kick in for the date you want to arrive, then call the property on the morning of that day. You can scoop up rooms made available by people who’ve just canceled.
6. Stay over Sunday. Many hotels get Friday and Saturday night bookings from leisure travelers and Monday-through-Friday traffic from business travelers, so there’s a void on Sunday night—which increases your chances of an upgrade. Instead of going for Friday and Saturday nights, book Saturday and Sunday or Sunday and Monday.
7. Hop between cities at midday. When you’re traveling through Europe or Asia and need to get from one city to another, consider scheduling transportation for the middle of the day. If you leave at dawn, you miss the sunrise—ideal for photography and observing locals—and reach your destination at mid-day, when temperatures are highest, the light is at its worst for photos, and it’s too early to check into your hotel. (You may also have to fight rush-hour commuters and miss a breakfast that is included in your rate.)
8. Visit islands during shoulder season. Peak-season rates on islands often reflect nearby countries’ vacation schedules rather than the best time to visit (Bali’s hotels, for instance, fill up with Japanese in early May and with Australians in January). In low season, many businesses shut down. Shoulder season—when crowds are thinner but the weather is still good—is the solution.
Find the Hidden Deals
9. Sign up for e-mail notifications. The best airfare and hotel sales are largely unannounced. Airlines and hotel companies target specific subsets of travelers—loyalty program members, holders of certain credit cards, people who’ve registered on their Web sites—and alert them by e-mail. To keep your in-box from being bombarded, get a dedicated e-mail address for such alerts and check it when you’re ready to start planning your next trip. If you can make quick purchasing decisions, sign up for alerts from flash-sale sites that sell hotel rooms at discounts of 40 percent or more, such as Jetsetter and Tablet Hotels.
10. Carry credit cards that earn you elite status. Play your travel-rewards credit cards right and you’ll receive special rates and perks. Carry one airline-branded card and one hotel-branded card that help you attain and maintain elite status—and make sure that at least one of those cards charges no foreign-purchase fee (preferably a Visa or MasterCard, since those are more widely accepted overseas than American Express).
11. Lock in business-class bargains from Etravelbid.com. Etravelbid.com negotiates unpublished, discounted business-class fares with no advance-purchase requirement. In November, snag a last-minute flight from New York, Boston, or Chicago to Dublin for $2,300; from Miami to Berlin for about the same; or from New York to Hong Kong, via Seoul, in the upstairs business-class cabin of an A380, for $4,500 (prices include all taxes and fees).
12. Find mileage-award seats on routes that connect airline alliances’ hubs.Competitours founder and CEO Steve Belkin taught me this one: Suppose you need to fly from Cleveland to Venice. Don’t bother asking if there are award seats available on that route; there won’t be. Instead, start with the hub-to-hub routes flown by the carriers in your alliance. Say it’s the Star Alliance: Look for availability on flights to Frankfurt, Vienna, Munich, or Copenhagen from Chicago, Newark, Philadelphia, Toronto, or Washington, D.C. (hubs for Star Alliance partners Continental, United, US Airways, and Air Canada). That gives you more than 20 possibilities. Once you’ve found a hub-to-hub flight with award seats, tack the short-haul flights on either end.
Use the Right Online Tools
13. Find the most flight choices with ITASoftware.com. This site provides perhaps the most comprehensive and least biased fare and route options. Use it to learn which airline offers the most suitable itinerary, then go to that airline’s Web site to book. If your schedule is flexible, choose “See Calendar of Lowest Fares,” punch in a monthlong travel window and the length of the trip, and the search engine will tell you when to fly.
14. Sign up for airfare alerts. AirfareWatchdog.com finds unadvertised low fares that other search engines miss—and notifies you daily via newsletter or immediately via Twitter. FareCompare.com alerts you when a fare drops by an amount you’ve specified (say, $50). Both help suss out connecting flights that can save you hundreds of dollars. AirfareWatchdog’s “To a City” alerts list fares from various airports to your destination. Say you want to fly from Houston to Kona, Hawaii. The Houston–Kona fare might be $800, whereas the Dallas–Kona one might be $350. If you’d signed up to see all the fares to Kona, you’d know to combine the Dallas–Kona fare with a cheap Houston–Dallas ticket. As for FareCompare, sign up for alerts to Kona not only from Houston but also from hubs west of it like Los Angeles and San Francisco. If you find a deal saving you $500 from one of those hubs, find a way to get there from Houston.
15. Get seat alerts from ExpertFlyer.com. If you don’t want to return to an airline’s site repeatedly to check whether a better seat has opened up, consider paying $5 per month for an ExpertFlyer membership. Punch in the flight you’re on, and the seat type (e.g., aisle) or rows you want, and you’ll be alerted by e-mail if any of those seats become available. You can also receive alerts on the availability of mileage-award seats and upgrades.
16. Get a better seat with SeatGuru.com and SeatExpert.com. Don’t select a seat without typing the airline and flight number into these sites and checking your location. If you must accept an inferior seat, return to the carrier’s site before your flight to see whether a better one has opened up. When you check in online, do so as early as possible; you’ll often find that seats have become available. And when you’re choosing airlines, use SeatGuru’s “comparison charts” to snag comfier seats and better in-flight entertainment.
17. Use TripAdvisor to connect with a hotel’s general manager. Often a general manager will reply to critiques of his property on TripAdvisor. When you book a room, read the replies, note his e-mail address, and write to him saying that you admire how he’s replying to reviews and that you’re looking forward to staying at his hotel on X date. He’ll appreciate your kind words, assume you may be a frequent reviewer, and hopefully do something extra for you during your stay.
18. Keep your miles from expiring with AwardWallet.com. Nothing’s worse than a big stash of miles that’s just vaporized. AwardWallet shows you all your different mileage accounts at a glance, including expiration dates, so you can take action to keep miles and points from expiring. I use it to track the accounts of everyone in my family: Within seconds I can see whose miles are in danger of expiring or who has enough for a trip, so I can cash in before they devalue.
Find the Right Human Beings
19. Get the best room for your dollar. At luxury properties, rates vary substantially according to occupancy. A room could be $550 one week because there’s a big group, and $250 the next because nobody’s coming. For top-end hotels that have on-site reservations desks, call and ask the manager when, during your travel window, the hotel will be emptiest and thus have the lowest rates. Then ask something like, “If I come on that date, would there be a chance of an upgrade to ocean-view?”
20. Score a better room by making requests. If you don’t ask for a great room, you’ll get what’s left over after everybody else’s requests have been filled. Phone the hotel’s on-site reservations manager to ask for a specific view or floor (or ask the general manager when you e-mail him). If you’re celebrating a special occasion (e.g., a birthday or an anniversary), say so. Hotels often do something extra to make sure your stay is memorable so you’ll tell your friends and return for future celebrations.
21. Use the concierge at a top hotel even when you’re not staying there. Most benefit from the extra business and can arrange for cars and drivers, procure hard-to-get tickets, provide names of specialty stores, or recommend English-speaking doctors. At the least, in destinations where a different alphabet is used, they can write down names and addresses of the places you want to visit so you can show them to cab drivers. Be up front about the fact that you’re not a guest—but so charming and friendly that he can’t resist helping you—and be sure to tip.
22. Book through “top producers.” The travel agent who sends the most travelers to a leading hotel or cruise line will be able to get you the most perks. These usually come in the form of resort credits, complimentary meals, and/or free upgrades. Ask an agent whether he is on any travel companies’ advisory boards, or see my list of top travel specialists in the magazine’s December 2011 issue.
23. Hire an English-speaking guide. In a tricky foreign country, the right guide can serve as your expediter and fixer, getting you past lines, showing you secret places you’d never find on your own, introducing you to locals, and helping you to bargain. Guides vetted by the top travel specialists on my list are high-caliber but pricey. Hiring a guide on the spot—at an ancient ruin or in a souk—is a crapshoot but often so in- expensive that it’s worth a shot. If the guide quotes, say, $20 an hour, propose $10 for a half-hour. If you’re disappointed, you can get rid of him with no hurt feelings. If you’re pleased with him, ask him to show you more.
24. Get the mileage-award seats you need with no effort. Gary Leff of BookYourAward.com has saved many a Condé Nast Traveler reader from headaches and despair by showing them how they can use their miles to get where they want, when they want, for fewer miles than they thought possible.
25. Be rescued when you’re stranded by an airline. When a snowstorm—or a volcano in Iceland—closes your airport, Brett Snyder of CrankyConcierge.com will do whatever is possible to get you to a functioning airport and onto a flight out.
VMS-Washington Travel Staff