Everyone wants a great summer vacation, but no one wants the steep credit card bill that can too often tag along. Does that mean you have to Google yourself into a frenzy and invest countless hours in trying to find the very lowest airfares and hotel rates on the planet? Not at all. In my 20 years as a travel reporter, I've learned countless tricks for affording a great getaway and making the booking process painless. Here, my top tips:1. Find Flights on Wednesdays
Sales on plane tickets don't just pop up randomly. There's a pattern to the pricing, and it often looks something like this: On Monday, Airline A announces that it's having a sale. On Tuesday or Wednesday, Airlines B and C jump into the fray with lower prices, too. By Wednesday morning, you have a much wider selection of low sale fares to choose from. On a recent Wednesday, for example, Virgin America, Southwest, JetBlue, United, American, and AirTran were all running fleet-wide sales. How much can you save? On that Wednesday, using e-alerts, you could have snagged a round-trip airfare between Columbus, OH, and Orlando for a sale price of $148, which is just a little more than half of the best non-sale round-trip fare, $278, listed on a popular booking site. So although you may have more free time to ticket-shop on the weekends, a midweek purchase will probably help you land the best bargain.
2. Get Your Coupon On
Before you head off on a vacation, make sure you consult the Entertainment Book (entertainment.com), a compendium of local deals and discounts that was available in 154 geographic editions at press time. They may feel touristy, but these books usually contain hundreds of pages of coupons and savings like free admission to museums, half-off restaurant deals, and dollars off on shopping. The book costs $35 or less, which can be quickly recouped. The New Orleans Entertainment Book, for instance, includes a 25 percent discount on a Steamboat Natchez dinner cruise, which could save a family of four over $50, and there's a buy-one-get-one-free gelato offer in there, too, to further sweeten the deal.
Related: Family Adventure Travel Ideas
3. Hit the Beach
If you like the idea of spreading out but really want to be by the shore come summer, snag a beach house or a condo - rather than a hotel room - to live large and save big. Try vacation rental sites like homeaway.com or vrbo.com (VRBO stands for "vacation rentals by owner") to get your feet wet. Say you wanted to go to Myrtle Beach, SC: I logged on to homeaway.com and spotted a two-bedroom condo that sleeps six in an oceanfront complex (with a pool to boot!) for $995 per week in late August - that's about $142 a night. In comparison, a room at Hilton Myrtle Beach Resort is about $204 a night during the same period. Plus, as with the suite deal, houses and condos have kitchens, so it's easy to stay home and cook cheaper meals - but you should still hit the boardwalk for some saltwater taffy.
Related: Best Portable DVD Players
4. Save on the High Seas
In the not-too-distant past, you had to fly to Florida or Los Angeles to board most cruises. But today there are many more options, and if you live near the coast, you may be able to skip the pricey plane ticket and instead drive for a few hours to the nearest cruise port (think New York City; Boston; Baltimore; Charleston, SC; Galveston, TX; Mobile, AL; Norfolk, VA; and New Orleans, among others).
Another way to be a money-smart traveler: While typical cruises last a full week, most lines now offer three-, four-, and five-day sailings, which can suit a slimmer budget. Just be sure to use your travel e-mail account to sign up for discount e-alerts with family-friendly cruise lines like Carnival (carnival.com), Disney Cruise Line (disneycruise.disney.go.com), Norwegian Cruise Line (ncl.com), and Royal Caribbean International (royalcaribbean.com) to help pare down your costs even more.5. Take the Skies Less Traveled
Airfares can be the biggest budget-buster these days, but if you're willing to travel a bit farther to get to the airport, you can save some serious cash. Let's say you live in the Miami area and want to visit relatives in Cleveland. In a search at press time, we found that if you flew out of Miami International Airport, you would pay $395 round-trip, but if you drove 25 miles to Fort Lauderdale, you could get a round-trip ticket for $230. Do the math: You'd end up saving $165 per round-trip ticket, or $660 for a family of four (way more than enough to cover admission for all of you at the famed Cedar Point amusement park, about an hour from Cleveland). To scan for similar savings, check the list of nearby alternative airports at cheapflights.com/travel-tips/alternate-airports.
-By Suzanne Rowan Kelleher
What are your cheap travel secrets?
More from Good Housekeeping: