Travel Booking & Planning Guide

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Travel Booking & Planning Guide
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My FIRST RULE OF TRAVEL: Find a great airfare deal or affordable destination — then figure out a reason to go there! Eventually you’ll see the world at a fraction of the normal price!

To help you plan nearly every part of your trip, here are some recommendations to get you on your way!


NAVIGATION:  Jump directly to these topics:

Domestic Airline Tickets | Domestic Hotels | Private Accommodations | Car Rentals | |Bus & Rail | Cruises, Packages & Tours | International Booking & Planning | Travel FAQs | Travel Tools


DOMESTIC AIRLINE TICKETS

Flexibility is the key to landing a great deal! First, try not to ‘box’ specifics when searching airfares. You’ll pay significantly more for your travel if you insist on traveling to a specific destination – and on specific dates. Even choosing times of departure and return on pull-down websites can make a difference in what you pay. For example, if you choose a 1:00PM departure for your flight and a 5:00PM return, you may be missing out on discount seats still available for an early morning departure and a mid-day return. Again, there’s no way to know this until you modify your time and/or date preferences — several times. ‘Boxing’ a trip will leave you few opportunities to take advantage of sale airfares.

When you have firm travel plans, start gathering airline quotes several weeks in advance, but resist making a purchase until you know the fare patterns between two cities, or until a too-hard-to-pass-up deal comes along.

So let’s get started with these websites that allow for flexible date searches.

BEST OPTION: Google.com/flights.
1. Choose one-way*, round-trip or multi-city (in/out of different airports)
*HOT TIP: Always the best option to find the cheapest prices!  Most destinations are served by multiple carriers offering one-way rates. Combine airlines to save!
2. Enter your city pairs. Option: Include nearby airports: LGA, EWR, SWF.
3. Mouse click inside the departure date window (don’t fill in specific dates).
4. Two monthly calendars automatically display with the lowest available fare shown for each date.
5. Jump forward a month or back using the left and right arrows beside the calendar.
6. Click on your desired date(s) to reveal the participating carrier.
7. Filters are available to choose specific carriers (Southwest fares not included in search results), nonstop routes, price, etc.
Tickets cannot be purchased at Google Flights, but options are offered to complete a purchase with the airline or other travel websites.
Flying international? Check Kayak and Momondo.

Need a bit of inspiration? I love the Kayak Explore tool. Plug in your hometown, and then see a world map showing the latest prices. Narrow in on an area of the map to see a wider range of prices. You can easily limit your search by price range, time frame and more. Try it!

Another shopping site is Google Flight Explorer. You can enter a destination as general as ‘Europe’ and start to see how fares change by travel season. Mousing over the chart shows the low airfares for each date. Clicking on a deal will take you to the regular Google Flights service for a full list of airfares.

Flexible date searches at Kayak (part of the Priceline Group) lets users choose a +/-3 days option to a preferred departure date. Results show a calendar of airfares. When you find a fare you like, you’ll be linked directly to the supplier to finish your booking. This helps avoid booking fees and allows you to use and accumulate travel points/frequent flyer miles.

When you’re flexible with travel dates, try the Southwest Shortcut to see results on a monthly fare calendars.

Enter your city pairs, choose a departure month, length of the trip, and the ‘My dates are flexible’ option at United Airlines. Results are shown on that calendar month, or skip back or forward months (up to 330 days in advance) to search for lower rates. You can also easily change the length of the trip for even more results.

Cheapair.com, an online travel agency (OTA) permits airfare searches up to 330 days in advance.

FrontierJetBlue and Virgin America all permit users to advance week-by-week to view alternative fares. For best results, search one-way trip details (open another browser window for a separate one-way search).

Delta Air LinesHotwire, and Orbitz only permit a +/-3 day search option.

No flexible date searches are permitted at American/USAirways.

Worth noting: When ‘Best price, Shortest Flight Time & Fewest Layovers’ are important to you, visit Hipmunk. Although it takes a bit of getting used to, its unique AGONY button searches this combination of requirements and lists on a graph which airline ticks all of those boxes. Watch out: The top carriers listed might not offer the lowest price.

One downside of meta-search websites is that certain airlines will be missing from results. Airlines such as Southwest or Allegiant direct sell only on their websites (airfarewatchdog.com includes Southwest and Allegiant Air deals). Additionally, third-party websites do not have exclusivity to all airline inventory. Airlines can often reserve the lowest fares and exclusive private sales for their own website. Bottom line? Check both online travel agencies (and individual airline websites for the best range of price results. An online travel agency (OTA) such as Expedia or Travelocity might offer the lowest airfare by suggesting an itinerary using one airline outbound and other for your return. Would a price search at Delta.com suggest you fly home on a cheaper Southwest flight?

If you must travel at the last-minute (less than a 7-day advance notice), consider flying one of the budget airlines you might not otherwise consider (Spirit, for example).

And about those airline fees… Airline fees can and often do exceed the cost of a flight! Additional charges now apply to budget and sale rates on most airlines for a carry-on bag, checked baggage and advance seat assignments. The least expensive fees are charged when these options are purchased during the ticket booking process. Fees climb higher after flights are reserved and even higher when adding these options at airport check-in. Kayak offers the most up-to-date Fees Chart for all domestic and international airlines.

For the hottest sales and deals, check out Clark’s Atlanta Travel Deals – and – Clark’s National Travel Deals, updated every weekday.


DOMESTIC HOTELS

Nearly all name-brand hotel chains now ensure consumers of the absolute lowest rates when booking directly at specific brand sites. You should still shop several general travel websites and compare rates from the brand website.

Caution! There are an estimated 480 online hotel bookings per minute. As more and more consumers book online, the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is sending out a warning about dubious hotel booking sites.  Watch out for misleading vendors when making your reservation!

When you’re ready to book a hotel, start by booking a refundable stay through one of these popular sites:
Quikbook
Booking
Hotels
Bookit

Once you’ve secured a refundable hotel, see if you can beat that price at one of the bidding sites:
Hotwire
Priceline

But don’t start bidding on either site until you understand how the process works. These two forums share ideas for making effective bids at Priceline and Hotwire:
BiddingforTravel
BetterBidding

If you don’t want to enter the bidding arena and want a specific hotel for your stay, try a free service from Tingo. Tingo tracks your booked hotel price and if the price goes down, it will automatically rebook your room at the lower rate (doesn’t work if you booked a nonrefundable rate). The site keeps checking for price drops up until the day of your arrival or until the rate becomes nonrefundable (usually 24-48 hours before arrival). Each time the rate drops, Tingo sends you an email with a new booking number at the lower price. The refund is made directly to your credit card. Tingo works with virtually every hotel group and thousands of independent properties.

Need a hotel at the last-minute? Try these app-based marketplaces:
HotelTonight: Sells last-minute rooms that would otherwise remain empty

RoomerTravel: Search and book hotel rooms from people who are stuck with a hotel reservation they no longer need. It works the other way, too. Have a pre-paid room you cannot use? Sell your reservation at Roomer.

I have obsessive compulsive disorder when it comes to saving on hotels — and have even more tips to share on how to score a hotel deal!


PRIVATE ACCOMMODATIONS

If you need several bedrooms, prefer to have your own cooking facilities, or if you plan to stay for more than a couple nights in a destination, you’ll often get a much better deal by renting an apartment, home or condo from a private owner. To avoid surprises, look for accommodations that already have lots of reviews. Also, be sure to discuss cancellation policies, house rules, deposits and payment methods upfront with the owner. Check your options at these websites:

AirBnB: Private homes, apartments and more
VRBO: Private homes, apartments and more
HomeAway: Private homes, apartments and more
Venere: International B&Bs, guest houses, country homes and more
SlowTrav: International villas, farms, cottages, apartments rentals
Reids Guides: Lodging in castles, a monastery – even an Amish farm
UniversityRooms: Rent a room at Oxford University, a dorm room in Rome and more
Agritourism World: Farm or country home stays in the U.S. and Europe


CAR RENTALS

A car is a car. Repeat. Shop car rental rates at many websites. Start a general search at carrentals.com and hotwire.com. Next, place a lower priced bid at Priceline.com (accepted bids are nonrefundable). Auto rentals from Priceline will get you wheels from the brand names you trust.

If just one or two persons will be using the rental, opt for a cheap economy-size vehicle. It’s likely that you’ll be upgraded to a larger vehicle at no cost if there are none available on your arrival. Just don’t fall for the agent encouraging you to upgrade for an extra per day fee. Insist on your original cost.

More than one driver?  Avoid those dreaded extra fees for an additional driver.  Avis, Budget and Enterprise allows a spouse or domestic partner as an additional driver without extra cost.  The waiver also applies to business colleagues.  Alamo, Dollar, Hertz and Thrifty all charge between $9.99 and $13.50 per day additional.  National charges for additional drivers but waives the fee for Emerald Club members (free to join).  The extra driver fee can sometimes be avoided by booking through Costco, or using membership numbers for AAA, AARP or USAA.

Autoslash is a site that will track your car rental and rebook you automatically if the price goes down before you pick up the car. In addition, Autoslash will apply any eligible discount coupon codes, which may further lower your cost.

Are you a Costco or Sam’s Club member? Exclusive rates are available when booking at the online vacation divisions. Both retailers scan applicable coupons, codes and discounts to find the best price available.

How to do score the lowest price on a rental car? Here are some tips and pointers on saving the max!


BUS & RAIL (domestic & international)

Board the bus. Ride the rails. Find the best routes and fares for trips across the U.S. and Canada at Wanderu. It’s all there – inter-city buses and trains between any two points. Purchase tickets for the Acela Express, BoltBus, Greyhound, Megabus, Red Coach, and dozens more. Results are given for travel no more than two months in advance (that’s because most bus companies don’t release schedules past two months).

Routes International provides web links to bus lines operating around the world.

Europe bound? FlixBus offers daily intercity bus service to nearly 300 destinations in over 15 different European countries. With amenities such as free WiFi, plenty of legroom, up to 3 pieces of baggage and snacks and drinks onboard, it’s a much cheaper and popular alternative to rail or air travel. SPECIAL: Europe’s largest intercity bus provider Flixbus lets you take five trips between 20 European countries for €99. Travel within three months between your choice of more than 900 cities. Buy passes at FlixBus.

Busbud offers one-stop shopping to find, compare and book inter-city bus tickets between cities all over the world — in the U.S., South American, Europe and beyond. Compare prices, bus schedules and pick up and drop off locations so that you can find the cheapest bus ticket for your trip.

UK-based International Rail specializes in worldwide rail tickets and passes. Bookings can be made for 66,000 point-to-point routes in Europe including Eurostar, French TGV, German ICE, InterCity, EuroCity, Thalys, Thello, Trenitalia and Spanish high speed trains. Rail bookings for other countries include Australia, New Zealand, Asia and South Africa.

GoEuro is a website and mobile app that helps you plan how to travel from the smallest villages and major cities across 11 Western European countries with just one click from a wide array of air, rail, and bus options. Type in your departure and destination points and the site simultaneously searches and compares all rail, bus, auto and flight offerings. The algorithm lets you sort the possible options by the cheapest, quickest, and “smartest” routes (convenience vs. expense).

Can you get there by ferry? Direct Ferries gathers routes and rates connecting over 220 countries and islands by sea.


PACKAGES & TOURS

Are you getting the best deal on a vacation by booking each component separately? Double check. You may find a less expensive price when you book a bundled getaway. For example, Bookit.com offers a calendar displaying total trip prices for bundled packages — including airfare, a hotel stay and a car rental.

Perhaps your trip is a bit complicated and you need professional help? Turn to the American Society of Travel Agents, or ASTA – the leading advocate for the travel industry and the traveling public. Find a travel agent or travel specialist (over 37 languages are represented) for every destination and style. Some agents will charge a fee for their expertise, but the cost may be worthwhile — particularly if you’re traveling to destinations off the beaten tourist paths.

Ready to take your first cruise? Sit down with a local cruise expert in your neighborhood. Find one at CLIA – the official trade organization of the cruise industry of North America. The website is also a great guide for researching specific cruise lines and their amenities.  Another source for up-to-the-minute cruise bargains is at Cruise Critic.

Trip Tip: Always pay tour and cruise deposits and final payments by a real credit card and never by debit card or check.

See the FAQ section below for insight into trip insurance.


INTERNATIONAL BOOKING & PLANNING

First things first. Is your passport up-to-date (or can you even find it!)? Get pricing information and necessary forms to renew or apply for a new passport. Once you have all necessary documents in order, complete the application process at a local authorized office near you.

Plan a trip to Europe during shoulder seasons (April-May, October) and low season months(November through March) when airfares are dirt cheap! That may be a huge sacrifice, but you’ll save huge dollars if you are flexible enough to visit cities ONLY when deep reductions are offered, such as when new service to a city is announced with introductory prices. They call it high season for a reason! Airfares offered from June through early to mid-September and again from mid-December through Christmas Day are the highest published of the year. Wait for it! As a particular season is about to end – late October, for instance – airlines can often mimic big-box retailers by offering ‘clearance’ sales with ultra-deep reductions and with the lifting of advance purchase requirements.

Many airlines only offer the deepest discounts at their own websites. Three in particular include Aer Lingus (Ireland), Iberia (Spain) and Qantas (Australia, New Zealand). Rates can be up to $400 less than rates found at OTAs.

In addition, consider the newbies and lesser-known carriers: XL Airways (to France); ArkeFly (Florida to Amsterdam) and Norwegian Air Shuttle (select U.S. cities to Europe).

Ready to shop for an international deal? Start at the website of your preferred airline — and then try these for expanded options:
Mobissimo
Kayak
Vayama

PlanetAmex has consolidator contracts with over 70 airlines for discounted international Business and First Class travel.

For travel within the Europe continent, check Which Budget to see who flys where. Searches include 340 airlines within 210 countries.

Does your school schedule prevent you from taking advantage of off-season specials? Teachers, students and other full-time students can find decent summer airfares and specials at these websites:
STA Travel
StudentUniverse
Contiki
StudentCity

Finally, be sure to read my Overseas Travel Guide: Money, Mobile & Banking before your international travels start. It’s got everything you need to know about how to use cell phone, mobile and WiFi overseas, and the best ways to exchange and handle money.


TRAVEL FAQs

Do I need a travel agent?

If you’re having trouble finding the great deals you hear me suggest, know that the lowest fares are often only offered on a select number of seats – and not every day of the week. If you see a fare that seems too good to be true, call a travel agent immediately (find one in your neighborhood at ASTA). Travel agents have access to a professional database. The limited number of sale seats sell out before they’re published on the online booking sites — or even on the airline’s own website.Calling the airline directly can be the least effective way to get a deal. It’s not in their interest to make these specials easy to find, and they’re often not even visible to the airline agents.

The best way to find a good travel agent is to ask your friends, neighbors, co-workers, or people that brag about their fabulous vacations to refer you to their agent. Yes, travel agents do charge fees that range from a percentage of airfare to a flat fee, but your ultimate savings could put you on the plus side — particularly if you’re traveling to destinations off the beaten tourist paths. Enter your zip code at ASTA to find an agent in your neighborhood.

Perhaps your trip is a bit complicated and you need professional help? Turn to the American Society of Travel Agents, or ASTA – the leading advocate for the travel industry and the traveling public. Find a travel specialist (over 37 languages are represented) for every destination and style.

Ready to take your first cruise? Sit down with a local cruise expert in your area. Find one at CLIA– the official trade organization of the cruise industry of North America. The website is also a great guide for researching specific cruise lines and their amenities.

Trip Tip: Always pay deposits and final payments by a real credit card and never by debit card or check.

See the FAQ section below for insight into trip insurance.


When is the best time to book a cheap airline ticket?

No one has a crystal ball — although some claim to have researched the topic scientifically. A study from CheapAir.com claims the magic number is 54 days in advance (7.5 weeks). The conclusion was reached after the airline booking website monitored 4,191,533 trips last year, based on bookings made 320 to 1 day in advance.

So what’s the best answer? If you buy tickets too far in advance you might end up paying too much. If possible, start searching fares 120 days in advance. Booking 90 days in advance should also work for the budget traveler (five-six months for international trips). That said, if you are flying during peak holiday seasons or over spring breaks to hot spots such as Cancun, Orlando or top ski resorts — booking six months out will likely score the discount seats.


Do I need trip insurance?

Travel insurance policies are designed to protect consumers by giving them refunds in the event of illness to the traveler or immediate family member, or to provide a refund in the case of company, tour operator or airline default.

Purchase a policy when taking a cruise, a tour or traveling on a trip that requires pre-payment of thousands of dollars. Just be sure you purchase a policy independent of the cruise, tour or vacation planner. Never purchase the trip protection plan from the trip organizer. Those types of policies are designed to protect only the company and not the consumer!

You can expect a policy to cost around 6 percent of the total cost of the trip. Of course, it’s possible to run that number way up.

Comparison shop for trip insurance policies at InsureMyTrip.

For more on travel insurance, see Clark’s guide.


When should I use my frequent flyer miles?

Do not redeem mileage for domestic trips that fall under $400. Instead, save and continue to accumulate miles to use for off-peak travel to Europe or Asia (roughly a 50,000-60,000 mile redemption). Another way to use points is to upgrade your international Economy Class ticket to a Business Class seat.

When you just don’t have enough mile point for a full ticket redemption, some airlines (such as Delta Air Lines) will allow you to apply as little as 10,000 miles to reduce the total ticket cost by $100. Apply 40,000 for a $400 reduction (usually $100 per 10,000 miles).

Whatever you do, don’t let those hard-earned miles expire. If you cannot use them before the deadline — gift them. Each airline will accept mile donations for various charitable organizations.


TRAVEL PLANNING TOOLS

The Internet is a traveler’s best tool for researching and planning a trip. Try this when looking for places to stay and what attractions are not to be missed: Pull up one of your favorite search engines, such as Google, Bing or others. Type in the name of the city you want to find out more about adding the key words – Official Tourism. This way you’ll eliminate sites that want to sell you something.

Get real-world advice and opinions from other travelers to help you decide on the best accommodations or attractions. Read both the good and the bad reviews to get the clearest picture. For hotels and resorts, note how (and if) the management responds to the reviews to get an idea of the customer service you’ll experience. Check out traveler’s photos and see how they compare to the advertised images.

Best bets:
TripAdvisor
VirtualTourist


How do I learn about airlines specials and sales?

Sign up at various websites to receive email promotions, notifications of sales, or reductions for your desired city pair. This search will give you a pattern of prices for comparison.

These websites offer automatic email alerts of price reductions:
Airfarewatchdog: The only website that includes Southwest Airlines and Allegiant
Kayak

Sign yourself up into the frequent flyer programs of various airlines. Members receive email promotions and notifications of special sales. Another way to learn in quick-time about special offers is to ‘follow’ airlines and travel companies on Twitter.  And, follow Clark on Twitter @Clark_Travel and Clark Smart Travel Deals on Facebook.


Airline & Airport information:
Live flight-tracking: FlightAware
Current info/conditions at U.S. and Canadian airports: FlightStats
Worldwide Airport Delays and Airport Status: FlightAware.


Finally, get help from fellow travelers — and share your travel insight at the Travel Message Board.  Happy Travels!

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Clark Howard About the author:
Clark Howard is a consumer expert whose goal is to help you keep more of the money you make. His national radio show and website show you ways to put more money in your pocket, with advice you can trust.
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