Top 10 Secrets for the Best Travel Deals

Uncover new and surprising budget-savvy shortcuts to booking flights and hotels.

Try a house swap.

Photographer: Tria Giovan

Do a House Swap

It may sound strange at first, if you’re used to room service and nightly turndowns, but more people are swearing by swaps—from couples craving a romantic getaway to families who want to relax with more space than confined hotel rooms.

For dream swaps, check out 3RD Home. Pay a two-year, $495 membership fee, register your luxe second (or third) property, and then collect enough “keys” online to stay at someone else’s hideaway. Imagine a four-bedroom home on the Côte d’Azur just outside of Nice or an oceanside retreat in Encinitas, California.

To find more attainable swaps, visit HomeExchange.com, where you can flip your Washington, D.C., townhouse for a home on the Oregon coast. Yearly membership is approximately $120. At Vacation Rentals by Owner, you can score beautiful beach houses or simple chalets. There is a $299 fee for listing.

Sign Up for Alerts

Sign Up for Alerts

Set up an account at Airfare Watchdog to get pinged when the flight you want dips to a lower price. The site also features an updated airline baggage fees chart to help skirt surprises at the check-in counter, and a day-by-day guide to the 50 lowest fares. Round-trip from Chicago to Fort Lauderdale for $94, anyone?

Sleuth Travel Sites, and then Switch

Sleuth Travel Sites, and then Switch

Study Expedia or Travelocity to find out which airlines fly where, and when you want to go. Then scoot directly to the airline site to make a beeline for the best rates and flight times. If you book a package deal, with air and hotel, instead of directly with the airline, it can be harder to receive a credit or refund if your plans change.

Using an umbrella site first also saves precious moments when you don’t want to hunt through several sites to find one going your way. Be aware that some airlines, such as JetBlue and Southwest, aren’t always listed on suitcase sites, so you may need to head to their Web sites at the start.

Tap Into Social Networking

Photo courtesy of Chatham Bars Inn

Tap Into Social Networking

Just like designer labels, most desirable destinations now have a presence on Facebook—from Sardinia Yoga (exclusive retreats on an island in Italy), to the classic Chatham Bars Inn on Cape Cod. Before you book a cruise, check the cruise line’s Facebook page. You might be able to click for vouchers or onboard credits.

“Like” your favorite vacation spots to stay up-to-date on package deals, special offers, and discounts.

Save on hotels like this one with search engines.

Photographer: David Hillegas

Use a Search Engine

Sites such as Kayak.com dive right in, navigating sea, sky, and lodging travel choices. Plus, it offers free apps for your iPhone, Android or BlackBerry.

Check Yapta.com to track fares and hotels. If a price drops significantly, Yapta will e-mail or Tweet at you so you know to request a refund or credit. And Priceline.com is still a favorite for hotel discounts and car rental deals.

Explore eBay

Photo courtesy of Peter Island Resort

Explore eBay

It seems like there is nothing you can’t find on this shopping site, including trips to the Caribbean and South Pacific. Specific deals—such as a week at a two-bedroom Westin St. John Resort villa with a starting bid of $2,300 versus $945 nightly—exist on eBay.

But buyer beware: As with all bids, make sure to check the seller’s record and reputation and choose those with recognizable names, like the Westin. That way, you can call the resort directly or check its Web site to vet actual prices and be sure you’re getting a bargain.

Pick Up the Phone

Photo courtesy of The Colony Hotel

Pick Up the Phone

Try the old-fashioned way and go directly to the source—there are times when talking trumps technology. It can be a gamble to wait until the last minute, but sometimes you can get lucky.

“I need to fill beds. If I’m empty, I’ll make deals at the last minute,” says Tammy Jo Long, founder and president of Luxury Living Properties in Savannah and Tybee Island, Georgia. “But call—if you book online, the system isn’t set up for that.”

Go the Distance to Another Airport

Photo courtesy of Southwest Airlines

Go the Distance to Another Airport

Visit travelmath.com to quickly gauge the distance between your town and several airports. You can save hundreds of dollars per ticket to fly out of a hub other than the one closest to home.

Hire a car service or pay someone to drive you. For a family of four, the ticket savings could be enough to pay for a couple of extra nights in a beachside hotel.

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

Photo courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

If there is somewhere you’d love to stay but it’s Champagne-and-caviar priced, sign up for the hotel’s e-mail list. You’ll be posted about lower, off-season prices and special packages. Watch for the right e-mail blasts, and then pounce.

Find an Honest Travel Agent

Find an Honest Travel Agent

Surprising, but a lot of upscale travelers still rely on convenient white-glove service. You feel pampered and don’t pay a fee for hotel reservations—the hotels pay the travel agent a commission. But if you book airline travel, expect a processing fee of around $30 (still low for the headaches you save).

To find an agent, visit the American Society of Travel Agents at www.asta.org. Enter your city and state to find an agent nearby, or do a detailed search based on the type of vacation you want.

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