Increasingly, travelers are trading the certainty of the destination for savings, Peter Yesawich, vice chairman of MMGY Global, a marketing firm with expertise in the travel, hospitality and entertainment industries, said at the Los Angeles Times Travel Show. Instead of saying, "I want to go to Hawaii," bargain buffs who say, "I just want warm and sunny" open their horizons. In other words, being geographically agnostic pays off.
Which raises the question of where the bargains are likely to be. At a panel discussion last weekend at the Travel Show, three bargain travel experts discussed their strategies for stretching vacation dollars.
--Look for trouble, said Gabe Saglie, senior editor of deal site Travelzoo — not trouble you create but trouble that's been visited upon a destination. Places that have recently experienced some type of turmoil, whether it's financial (Ireland and Greece) or climatological (Thailand with recent floods) may be ripe for plucking from the bargain bin. Japan, still recovering from the earthquake and resulting tsunami in March, also may offer some opportunities.
--Look for the crowds, said John Di Scala, founder of JohnnyJet.com. This year, you may find the Mediterranean crowded with cruise ships, which means the per-night cabin price may drop dramatically. He also suggested the Caribbean in September, which is still hurricane season but may offer some deals. ("Ships can navigate around storms," he said.)
--Look for where the crowds aren't, said Doug Miller, senior vice president of new initiatives for LivingSocial. Ski resorts suffered a well-publicized dearth of snow early in the season, and although Mother Nature has since stopped being so stingy with the white stuff, the perception that the cupboard is bare lingers. Look for specials at resorts eager to be myth busters.
--Sign up for everything. Because airlines don't have as much inventory as they once did, and thus less of it to move at fire-sale prices, some take to Twitter or Facebook to announce last-minute sales of the few seats they do have. When looking at an airline, hotel or car rental site that asks whether you'd like info about special offers, just say yes. (You could create a separate email account just for those special deliveries because they'll clog your everyday inbox.)
--Peruse plenty of places. Miller of LivingSocial says deal hounds will check 18 to 23 sites in the course of their research. All three experts suggested looking at the sites they work for, of course, but they also suggested Airfarewatchdog.com, Yapta.com, Kayak.com (an airfare aggregator),Priceline.comand BiddingforTravel.com, which can help guide you before you place you bid; Homeexchange.com (for house swapping); VRBO.com (vacation rental by owner); and FlyerTalk.com (good for info on rewards programs). To their list I would add SmarterTravel.com, CruiseCompete.com and WhichBudget.com (with a thank you to Kiplinger's for calling out this site, which compares prices for airfares within Europe).
--Watch out for those "bite you in the budget" hidden fees that can wreck your best-laid plans. Make sure you ask about such cost extras as hotel parking (ask whether the fee quoted is per night or for your total stay); hotel resort fees (you can try to negotiate them with the hotel if you don't use, say, the spa or the phone); baggage fees (learn to pack lightly and carry it on, except on airlines that charge for that — Spirit in the U.S. and many foreign carriers abroad); and fuel surcharges (foreign carriers are increasingly adding these).
--Most of all, be flexible. Don't fly on the days that are busiest for business travel — Fridays and Mondays — because you may pay higher prices; stay at business destinations when the business folks have gone home for the weekend; and go in the off-season, because it's never the wrong season for saving money.