Most of us have to book travel at some point or another, whether it’s for work, to visit family and friends or just to get away from it all on vacation.
Money expert Clark Howard, a former travel agent himself, has spent decades perfecting the art of planning and booking trips. In this article, we’ll share his secrets and show you how to use all of the available tools to make travel plans that suit your needs at the lowest possible price.
Booking Travel the Clark Howard Way
- How To Plan a Trip
- How To Book Flights
- How To Find a Hotel or Other Lodging
- How To Reserve a Rental Car
- How To Book Bus or Rail Tickets
- How To Select a Cruise
- When To Buy Travel Insurance
- Travel the Clark Howard Way
How To Plan a Trip
The very first thing you need to do is to make a plan. It can be as simple or as involved as you want it to be. Some people love to fly by the seat of their pants and do minimal planning, while others like to have every minute of an itinerary accounted for before they leave the house.
No matter which type of traveler you are, there are some basic steps you’ll need to take if you want to travel on a budget:
- Select your destination: In some cases, your destination will be selected for you, and there will be no decision to make. Other times, you might have some days off from work and decide you want to scratch a place off your bucket list. Or, if you’re like Clark, you might just wait for a deal to come along and let the destination pick you.
- Figure out your trip length: If you have only a few days off, this might already be decided for you. But if you have some flexibility in your schedule, being fluid with the number of days in your trip could be the key to saving money on travel expenses. And your destination can play into this part of the decision-making. For example, you might be able to do everything you want to do in a smaller city in a day or two, but taking in everything important to you in New York City might take a week or more.
- Research your destination: If you’re going somewhere for the first time, you’ll want to get the lay of the land. Figuring out what you want to accomplish on your trip can help you decide exactly where you want to stay and how you intend to get around. The research process can also help you start figuring out approximate costs of things (lodging, transportation, attractions and meals) so that you can make sure you stay within your budget.
- Know the rules: Policies and procedures can change frequently and quickly. It’s crucial to ensure you have all documents (like a driver’s license, passport and any other required information) before leaving home. Lori Silverman from Team Clark’s Consumer Action Center recommends checking Travel.State.Gov for the latest information on your destination. And also remember to check the latest health-related regulations for your destination at the CDC website.
How To Book Flights
Once you’ve got the planning part down, it’s time to figure out how you’re going to get to where you’re going. If your destination isn’t within easy driving distance or you simply don’t want to drive, an airline flight is probably going to be your best option.
Booking flights has come a long way since the days when you had to call a travel agent or the airline itself to buy tickets. Now, there are literally thousands of places to turn to book a flight. So how do you find the best price?
Conventional wisdom has held for a while that there is a “perfect” day of the week to book air travel. With the advent of dynamic pricing, that has changed. According to Team Clark’s travel expert, Clara Bosonetto, “Technology has marched on from the days of manually loading new prices. Airfares are now updated constantly and automatically using complex algorithms.”
But it’s still important to have a strategy. Flexibility is the key to landing a great deal. When you have firm travel plans, start gathering airline quotes several weeks in advance, but resist making a purchase until you’ve learned the fare patterns to your destination or until an excellent deal comes along.
We’ve found that the most robust flight search engine is Google Flights.
“Google Flights should be the first website to visit to search domestic and international airfares before you jump over to a specific airline to book a flight,” according to travel expert Clara Bosonetto. “With its many filters, it’s the best site to use when you must fly on a specific airline, must have a nonstop flight, you have a multiple city trip (flying into one city and out of another) or you want to book one-way travel.”
When you search your itinerary, Google Flights will show you options for your selected dates and let you know if the prices are higher, lower or about average for your route. The site also lets you explore fares on alternate dates with its calendar and price graph features.
Once you’ve selected a flight, the site will show you the total cost of your ticket and what’s included with that fare. You’ll also see options for upgraded tickets (if available) and what paying more will get you. If checked bags are not included in your fare, the site will let you know what that will cost you.
When you’re ready to book, Google Flights will send you directly to the airline’s website to complete your transaction.
The site will also let you track prices, which can potentially help you save big on airfare. When you toggle the “Track Prices” button (you must be signed in to your Google account), Google will send you alerts if the price on your selected route changes. It is important to note that fares on Southwest Airlines do not appear on Google Flights.
How To Find a Hotel or Other Lodging
When it comes to planning where you stay during your trip, there are a lot of options. The increasing popularity of Airbnb and other private accommodation booking services means more choices for travelers.
Still, some people prefer to stay in a hotel when they travel, and Clark has a three-step process for booking a great hotel room on a budget.
1. Book a Refundable Room
“If I’m flying somewhere — you usually book your airfare pretty well in advance — I also book a hotel room at the same time,” Clark says. “I book the best deal I can find for where I’m going but always a refundable room.”
Doing this leaves you the option to cancel the room if you find a better deal in the days leading up to your trip.
2. Search for Better Deals Before Your Trip
That’s where the next step comes in: really doing the research to find the best deal.
“I already know I have a room if I need it,” Clark says. “But I want a deal! So what I do is heavily concentrate on Hotwire and Priceline, two sources where you don’t know where you’re staying until you book nonrefundable.”
Clark understands that some people might be uncomfortable not knowing the name of their hotel before they book. That’s why we published our guide to finding out which Hotwire or Priceline hotel you’re getting before you book.
As for when you’re likely to find the best deals on those sites, Clark has a strategy: “I’ll check throughout the time period leading up to my travel, but I especially concentrate one week out and less,” he says. “A lot of times, the best deals are the last few days before you travel.”
Clark also checks other hotel booking sources to compare prices to what he finds on Priceline and Hotwire, including:
- Trivago: a handy hotel comparison site for travelers
- Hotels.com: site that offers a price guarantee and often offers discount codes for room bookings
- Roomer: a hotel site that lets you buy beds from motivated sellers who bought nonrefundable rooms
3. Cancel the Original Booking
The last thing you need to do, assuming you’ve found a better deal, is to cancel your original refundable booking.
“Occasionally that room you booked when you booked your airline deal will be the best hotel deal you’ll find,” Clark says. “But if you do it my way, most of the time you’re going to save big bucks.”
See Clark talk about his three-step hotel booking process in the video below.
If you’re looking for a more unique travel experience, Airbnb, Vrbo or the vacation rentals offered through major travel sites such as Tripadvisor or Expedia, might be the way to go. This also applies if you need a larger space, prefer to have your own cooking facilities or if you plan to stay for more than a couple of nights in a destination.
You’ll sometimes get a much better deal by renting a home or condo from a private owner. But take care to know the all-in price before you hit that “Reserve Now” button. In a recent podcast, Clark pointed out that more and more vacation rentals are tacking on fees that end up making the total much higher than you’d expect when you look at the nightly rate.
How To Book a Rental Car
So, you’ve taken care of your flight and lodging plans, but you might need some way to get around on your trip. Some destinations are totally walkable. Others have great public transportation. But if you need a car, there is a strategy to booking a cheap rental.
Here are Team Clark’s six steps to getting a great deal on a rental car.
1. Figure Out What Kind of Vehicle You Need
Whether you get a sedan, SUV or van, you need to make sure the vehicle you rent makes sense for you. Important questions to ask yourself include:
- How many people will be traveling?
- How much, if any, luggage will I need to stow?
- Do I need more than two doors to accommodate car seats or special needs?
- Will I need a vehicle that can handle rough terrain?
- Do I care if the vehicle is a basic model, or do I want something more luxurious?
2. Start Your Research With AutoSlash
The first part of your search for a rental car is a secret to a lot of people, but one that Team Clark has found can save you a lot of money: a site called AutoSlash.
One of the great things about AutoSlash is that the site will monitor the vehicle you select and email you if the price on the rental drops between the time you book and the time you pick it up, allowing you to re-book at the lower price. Read our full review of saving money on rental car bookings with AutoSlash here.
3. Check the Other Aggregator Sites
Once you’ve established the lowest price you can get on your desired vehicle through AutoSlash, it’s time to compare prices on the other sites that aggregate rental car rates. Some of the most popular and trustworthy are:
4. See if You Can Get a Better Deal Directly From the Rental Car Company
Once you’ve established the best deal available between AutoSlash and the major travel booking sites, head directly to the rental agency to see if it can match or beat the price you’ve already found, either on the agency’s website or by calling on the phone.
5. Book the Best Deal
Generally, with car rentals, you’re just reserving the car and not paying upfront. That means you won’t even have to give up a credit card number to lock in your reservation. It also means that, unlike most airline tickets and hotel reservations, you won’t be penalized if you need to cancel or change your reservation later.
6. Check Back a Week Before Your Trip To See if Prices Have Dropped
Finally, since you’re not locked into your reservation with a credit card, you have one more trick up your sleeve, and it’s one of Clark’s favorite travel tips.
“When I book my flight weeks or months before the actual date of travel, I also book my car rental at the same time,” he says. “Then a week before my travel date, I re-shop the car rental rate. At least 90% of the time, I find that I can book a new car cheaper at the last minute, so I just let my old reservation go.”
READ MORE: 6 Steps To Getting the Best Car Rental Deal
How To Book Bus or Rail Tickets
Whether you don’t like flying or you want to enjoy the landscape, you might decide to travel by bus or train. If that’s your plan, here’s how to find the best deals.
There are a number of internet resources for booking bus tickets. Go online to the following bus travel sites:
- Wanderu: This transit website and app specialize in affordable bus and train fares (but also offers flights and hotels) in North America and Europe.
- Gotobus.com: This lists ticket prices for bus rides, bus rentals and hotels. The Deals tab has some of the most affordable bus tickets around.
- CheckMyBus: CheckMyBus is a travel portal that claims it can save you up to 70% on average and offers the most bus routes worldwide.
- Busbud: Busbud is well-regarded for its comprehensive search results and mobile app. The site, which shows routes in more than 63 countries, also has user-submitted travel reviews for every route. If you search online, you may even be able to find a discount code, which could save you up to 20% on selected travel routes.
When it comes to domestic train travel, Amtrak is pretty much your only interstate choice. The rail carrier covers more than 21,000 miles across 46 states.
If you want to purchase train tickets at the lowest possible price, keep these things in mind:
- Look for discount Saver and SmartFares: Saver Fares are usually web-only specials that require the advance purchase of tickets. SmartFares are weekly discounts that are typically used to fill up trains. The tickets are nonrefundable and subject to availability.
- Seek out discounts: Amtrak offers 50% discounts for children, 10% for seniors, 10% for military personnel and their families and 10% for disabled adults and their companions.
- Check out Amtrak’s Deals page: Amtrak’s Deals page often features buy-one-get-one-free specials and special prices on select routes.
- Sign up for the rewards program: Join Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program, and not only will you get deals sent straight to your inbox, but you earn two points per dollar spent on Amtrak. You can redeem those points for upgrades and free travel.
- Look for special offers at RailServe.com: It has an Amtrak coupons section.
For booking international rail travel, it’s hard to beat UK-based International Rail. Bookings can be made for 66,000 point-to-point routes in Europe, including on Eurostar, French TGV, German ICE, InterCity, EuroCity and Spanish high-speed trains. Rail bookings for other regions include Australia, New Zealand, Asia and South Africa.
How To Book a Cruise
During an episode of his podcast early this year, Clark warned about booking a cruise in 2022 because of still-changing conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. He cited the fact that, depending on COVID restrictions, some ports on your cruise might not allow passengers to disembark. He also pointed out that COVID protocols on some ships can make for a less than optimal cruising experience.
As the pandemic waxes and wanes, so does the availability of cruises and deals. “Now you have to do a lot more picking and choosing,” Clark says, adding that before you can find a good cruise deal, you need to make a couple of adjustments regarding your mindset and travel plans.
“You have to adjust to today’s reality and adjust how you book with the flexibility of the ship you go on, and particularly when you sail to get the best deal,” he says.
It is important to check on current guidelines from the CDC and the policies of individual cruise lines before you book.
Keeping in mind all those caveats, Clark has three primary rules to follow when it comes to booking cruises.
1. Let the Calendar Save You Money
“There are certain cycles through the year when cruise lines have trouble filling all their cabins, and that’s when you steal the great deals,” he says.
So when is typically the best time to book?
“After Thanksgiving but before Christmas kicks off is a bargain time for any kind of travel — and cruises are right in the midst of that,” he says.
Comparison shopping will give you a better understanding of what prices should look like at certain times of the year.
One of Team Clark’s favorite sites for finding last-minute cruise deals is VacationstoGo.com. (Note: We do not recommend that you book on this site, but it’s a good place to do research.) If you want to compare prices from multiple travel agencies, CruiseCompete.com can also be a good source.
2. Don’t Let Cruise Brand Loyalty Cost You More
Some people are really loyal to cruise line brands, but that can absolutely kill your budget.
Clark’s advice is when planning your trip, venture away from what you know and explore other companies and what they’re about: “Look at things like experimenting with cruise lines you’re not that familiar with.”
Clark does offer this one caution though: “Never book a deal on a cruise just because it’s a deal. You need to really be comfortable that that ship is going to fit your lifestyle, the things that you’re interested in.”
The price won’t matter much if you find yourself on a cruise ship that doesn’t mesh with your expectations. Do the research.
3. Read the Reviews
You should try to get a balanced view of the cruise lines and particular ships you’re interested in, so it’s best to read some reviews.
Clark recommends a site where you can take a deep dive into cruise ship specs as well as deals and booking tips.
“I’d love for you to spend time on CruiseCritic.com, reading about a ship before you book on that ship,” he says. “Additionally, you can look closely at the various individual cabins to make sure you don’t get in a cabin that’s going to be a problem because it’s in a noisy area of the ship, for example.”
Another really helpful tip is to ask family, friends and coworkers if they have any recommendations. And travel agents who specialize in cruises sometimes have the inside scoop on particular ships and itineraries.
When To Buy Travel Insurance
Now more than ever, it is important to consider purchasing travel insurance because of the still-changing travel conditions related to COVID-19. There are many different types of travel policies available, but there are two types we recommend that will likely cover most of your needs.
The best policy is one that allows you to cancel for any reason. It happens to be called Cancel For Any Reason (CFAR) insurance, and Clark says it’s great because it can you get at least most of your money back no matter why you decide not to make the trip.
Even before the pandemic, Clark recommended getting CFAR insurance for these four types of travel:
- Embarking on a cruise
- Booking a tour as part of your trip
- Traveling on an itinerary that requires prepayment of thousands of dollars
- Purchasing a trip that is non-refundable
“If you book a tour or you book a cruise — those two in particular — if you’re going to lose all your money regardless of why you can’t come, then you need to get insurance,” Clark says.
Clark recommends that you comparison shop for travel insurance that suits your needs at InsureMyTrip. It’s an aggregator site that helps you analyze all of the different choices available.
In addition to a CFAR policy, you may also want to consider travel medical insurance.
“The thing with international travel, which almost nobody knows until it’s a big problem, is that your health insurance usually doesn’t cover you outside the United States,” says Clark.
Travel the Clark Howard Way: Let the Destination Pick You
Over the years, Clark has used a trip-planning strategy that has allowed him to visit 49 states and almost every corner of the globe without spending a lot of money. His secret is surprisingly simple.
“My #1 rule of travel is buy the deal first and then figure out why you want to go there. By following that simple rule, I’ve been able to visit every continent except Antarctica and every state except North Dakota. And I’ve done it all on a dime.”
In order to accomplish this, Clark does three things that you can do, too.
1. Don’t Pick a Destination
How do you figure out where the deals are? Kayak Explore is a tool that lets you find great airfare deals that fit your budget.
You simply select how much you’re willing to pay and available destinations in your price range pop up on a world map. You can drill down further by season and month of travel.
2. Sign Up for Cheap Flight Services
Another way to approach the question of how to travel on the cheap is to sign up for any of a variety of cheap flight services. Clark likes and subscribes to all three of these to get the early word about the best airfare sales:
Scott’s Cheap Flights and Dollar Flight Club both operate on a freemium model. You can use a basic version of their services for free, but you have to pay to upgrade in order to access a more robust version of the service. Clark says the upgrade is worth it if you really love to travel.
3. Set Up Fare Alerts
Not everybody can be flexible and let the deal drive their travel plans all the time. If you have a place you know you need to go — maybe a wedding or a family reunion — your best bet is to set up fare alerts.
Fare alerts will let you know when the price on a particular route drops and by how much. This kind of pricing perspective can save you a lot of money.
Now that you have Clark’s advice for planning and booking a trip on a budget, you should be ready to pack your bags.
We know the process can be intimidating, especially when you’re going somewhere you’ve never been before. In fact, there are times when we recommend you consult a travel agent for help.
But for the majority of cases, if you follow the steps outlined above, you’ll be on your way to your next adventure without breaking the bank.