smart spending

Score winter travel deals and save

Airplane © Eray - Fotolia.com
Highlights
  • Travel deals abound during the winter months if you pick the right weeks.
  • Flights to Europe in winter are 15 percent to 20 percent below summer prices.
  • A trick to get a better rate on a rental car: Rent the car for seven days.

For most people, winter travel means visiting family during Thanksgiving, taking that ski vacation at Christmas break or partying in a tropical climate on New Year's Day. But travel deals abound during the winter months as long as you pick the right weeks to take your next vacation.

A good rule of thumb: If you travel during peak times, expect to pay top dollar. Go off-peak, and you can save 15 percent or more.

"The winter season is the very best time to find broad-based travel deals," says Clem Bason, president of Hotwire Group, which runs several travel websites.

Whether you're looking to save on an airline ticket, hotel room or rental car, if you can fit in a winter vacation during the weeks after Thanksgiving and leading up to Christmas, you'll save a bundle, Bason says. That's because people aren't vacationing during that time. In addition, corporate travel comes to a screeching halt, leaving the industry with excess inventory it needs to fill.

"The first three weeks of December are the cheapest travel time and the best time to travel all year," Bason says. "Compared to what you pay during the summer, you should look for discounts of at least 10 percent to 15 percent at a minimum."

Kevin Turner, a spokesman at Kayak.com, the Norwalk, Conn., travel website, says if December isn't an option, you can save money if your winter travel occurs in the middle of January or during the middle of February. He says to avoid major holidays, long weekends or any time kids are out of school for breaks.

Discounts surge for Europe, Mexico and stateside

For many destinations, traveling during the winter months means you won't enjoy sun-drenched days and humid nights, but it also means less crowds and shorter waits at area attractions. Take Europe, for example. Bason says flights to Europe during the winter months are 15 percent to 20 percent below the summer peak prices.

"Europe in winter is a great option," says Turner. "It's gorgeous in winter to explore the castles in Prague with the snow on the ground."

Turner says he was even able to fly to Barcelona for $250 round-trip in late February last year.

If you're after warm weather, Mark Noennig, vice president and general manager at Elk Grove Village, Ill., charter vacation company Apple Vacations, says you can save on trips to Mexico as long as you stick to the less-traveled time frames for a winter vacation. "Because there are so many hotel rooms in Mexico, a lot of rates stay very attractive, especially in the all-inclusive market," Noennig says. "We're seeing some great values."

Bason says other warm climate areas where deals abound during off-peak winter weeks include Hawaii, Palm Springs, Calif., and Arizona.

For ski enthusiasts, trying to find a deal during the winter months can be tough. But according to Bason, if you book a trip early or late in the season, you're apt to save more than if you book during the peak ski months. Still, going at an off-peak time is risky because conditions may not be ideal for skiing. Bason says for winter travel during off-peak times, wait until the last minute. As soon as you know that snow is coming, book immediately when the hotel still has rooms available.

"Once the snow falls, everyone is booking and raising prices," Bason says.

Timing is everything

Traveling during the right weeks isn't the only way to save money on winter vacations. Employing a few strategies can maximize your savings. Turner says consumers can find the cheapest airfares from two to four weeks before the flight. During off-peak seasons such as winter, people can even save on last-minute flights, which is not the case during peak times.

"If you're talking about Thanksgiving, Christmas or Presidents Day, it's a wash because everyone is looking to travel," Turner says.

Turner says to fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday since the weekend and Mondays are the busiest flying times and that buying two one-way tickets on different airlines can yield savings on the cost of an airline ticket. "It's a common misconception that one-way tickets are more," Turner says.

Bason says you may not need to be as flexible about choosing hotels during winter vacations because hotels are often empty during off-peak periods.

"You should be able to get pretty good deals on weekdays and weekends or anytime," Bason says.

A trick to get a better rate on a rental car: Rent the car for seven days if possible. That's because the rate goes to a weekly rate once you've hit seven days and carries a greater discount than renting for fewer days and paying the daily rate, Bason says.

Noennig says travelers should look into booking package deals because they are apt to get the lowest rates available that way. "These vacations are a good price right now," says Noennig. "Winter travel is a great time for people to get away."

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