Time it right and save big on vacation travel

At Bankrate we strive to help you make smarter financial decisions. While we adhere to strict , this post may contain references to products from our partners. Here’s an explanation for

The world’s most popular destinations can be surprisingly affordable if you travel when most people don’t.  

Fly seven days before Thanksgiving instead of a day before and you might snag a great deal on a ticket.

“We once went to New York the week before Thanksgiving and celebrated with my family then because four tickets for Thanksgiving week were just outrageously expensive,” says Hope Eliahou of Los Angeles. “We got some great rates, with about a $500 total savings.”

For $500, it might be worth eating turkey a little early with understanding family.

“We were just grateful to be together,” Eliahou says. As a bonus, she was able to celebrate again on Thanksgiving Day with friends.

As a general rule, the biggest vacation savings are about timing. Memories can be made at cheaper moments, too, say dedicated off-season travelers.

Enjoy the preholiday season

The before-Christmas season, when most people are shopping, is a great time to get ski deals, travel savers say.

Consider using the December shopping season as an excuse to escape to Colorado. It’s an ideal time to ski: lots of snow, thinner crowds and often-slimmer prices.

The rule of timing savings applies abroad, too.

The glittering cities of Europe are a source of cheaper rates in early to mid-December, which is high shopping season there as well.

So if you can’t afford Madrid in July, think late fall or early winter.

Spain is pleasant in December — temperatures in the mid-40s to mid-50s, as opposed to the sweltering summer, and the best airfares of the year to Spain tend to come in early December.

Hotel owners and restaurants often have specials at slow times as an extra sweetener.

In Córdoba, Spain, the site of the famous Mezquita, which is packed to the gills every summer, some inns offered two-nights-for-one specials, free breakfasts and other goodies in the first half of December last year.

Plan around conventions, and save

You can snag a ritzy room in Las Vegas if you’re willing to be a little open-minded on timing.

“If you have flexible dates, you can save a lot,” says Lynn Goya, author of “Fun with the Family in Las Vegas.” “Go to the Wynn Resorts Web sites and look at the calendar. A room at an off time, when they know there’s no convention, can be a great deal.”

Just how great is great?

“You can get a room for $119 or $129 a night that can be $1,100 at another time,” Goya says.

“Pick two or three resorts, even the top ones, and start scrolling through the booking dates on their Web sites,” Goya says. “You’ll see huge changes.

“Most of the main casino hotels will vary their rates on occupancy and expected occupancy. If you can be flexible, book early and check around a lot.”

Don’t think you’re selling yourself short, either.

An off time “is a nicer time to come, because when we’re booked, everything’s so crowded,” Goya says. “This way it’s more accessible — there are more openings in our shows and in our top restaurants.”

A day before or after a convention, Goya says, is one way to go, and you can figure that out from the online calendars.

Between Christmas and New Year’s

If convention avoidance doesn’t work for you, try the traditionally cheapest week of the year.

Goya says that apart from odd convention-less times, in Las Vegas, “the only other time that’s typically a lot cheaper is the week after Christmas and before New Year’s. 

“The only problem with that is that a lot of our shows go dark that week, so you might want to check on entertainment before you book,” she says.

You can snag a deal on major city hotels that week, too, if you’re willing to deal with some typically cold winter weather.

A downtown Chicago hotel room, for instance, will usually be more reasonable in the last week of the year, and you can still enjoy the same great museums as any other time.

The Magnificent Mile is just as magnificent during the year’s cheapest travel week.

Go midweek, and eat in midafternoon

If you’re traveling with children, the cheapest time may also be the most convenient time.

“Typically, midweek or weekends when there are no conventions are better times to bring kids, because it’s less crowded,” says Goya.

“Think of eating midafternoon meals, or hors d’oeuvres at happy hours,” says Goya, who recommends that strategy for visiting Las Vegas. “We have great happy hours that can be really inexpensive.

“One place was doing a one-pound lobster for $12 during happy hour,” Goya says. “Often the happy hour includes a lot of food, and you can save money that way.

“Take advantage of those off times during the day, because a lot of places have bargains,” she says.

That’s true in other cities, too. If you can eat a late lunch in New York, it will be a lot cheaper than dinner. Of course, the biggest saver of all is a big breakfast.

Even better is booking a hotel where a filling morning meal is free.

Arrive at the last minute — intentionally

Fashionably late can also be fashionably frugal.

Sometimes a last-minute fare that gets you there on the eve of a holiday, or the next morning, can be a steal.

Another tactic is to consider vacationing right after everyone else does. Thanksgiving Day can be far cheaper than the day before, and you can still have pie with relatives.

Consider July 6th instead of July 4th, and enjoy fireworks at home.

By the time you get on the road, traffic will be lighter, waitresses will have more patience and you can probably find a better deal.

Fly before school lets out

If you are not bound by a school schedule, take advantage and save.

Jerusalem is packed with students and pilgrims of all ages every summer. Go in early May, just before school lets out, and it will be cheaper.

You’ll also save if you can go in the fall after school starts — as long as you plan your trip away from Jewish holidays, which attract many travelers.

Ditto for many destinations in Europe: If you can avoid Easter and the religious festivals of Spain, and sneak in just before schools close their doors, or right after they open them, you’ll pay less.

Museums will be emptier, lines at tourist destinations will be shorter and the weather will already be quite nice in May or October.

You might even be able to bargain with hotel owners who can’t fill rooms during those somewhat slower seasons.

Off night at the opera and theater

If you don’t want to fly or drive anywhere, the same principle of odd timing can help you save on a night of local arts, ranging from theater to opera.

Generally, the night before Thanksgiving — when the rest of America is traveling — is a good time to look for cheap seats at the opera.

Some of this sort of thing is local. If a new hot play is opening, an older established show might be available for less.

As always, midweek and midafternoon will help you save. A matinee will almost always be cheaper than an evening performance, a rule which applies to movies as well as a plays. A midweek ticket for Broadway’s hottest show will cost less than a Saturday night performance.

Everything around a midafternoon or midweek show will be cheaper, too, from parking to a restaurant meal.

If museums are your thing, many have free nights, usually in midweek. The Art Institute of Chicago, for example, opens its doors on Thursday evenings to the public, at no charge.

Don’t overdo it

In your quest to save, some odd times don’t make sense. Sometimes, when everyone is off on holiday, it’s not that much fun.

“There is the time I spent in Dubai during Ramadan, eating pistachios in my hotel room with the curtains shut,” says Isaac Sullivan, an artist in Iowa City, Iowa. “The cold water was hot.”

Make sure the basics will be available before you go off, grinning with savings joy, on that bargain vacation.