Find the Cheapest Flight
Booking sites like Expedia and Priceline are a good place to look for tickets, but they don’t have all of the airlines in their systems.
For example, Southwest & Alaska Airlines only sell tickets through its own site. To be really thorough when comparing prices, check each airline’s website for flights out of your closest airports.
Play with dates if you have some flexibility in your travel plans. I’ve seen a difference of $200 for a flight leaving a day later or sooner.
If you want really cheap tickets, search for “hidden-city” fares on SkipLagged.com. These are longer, but sometimes cheaper, flights that have a layover in your destination. You just don’t get back on the plane for the second leg of the ticket. This strategy only works if you travel without checking any luggage.
Use Credit Card Points for Flights and Cars
It takes a long time to earn enough credit card reward points to pay for a flight — especially through just normal purchases. That’s why saving on the hotel stay and all-inclusive will substantially offset your total vacation cost.
The best travel cards give you more than the typical penny-per-point. My points were worth 1.25 cents if I used them for travel bookings through Citibank’s “ThankYou Points” system.
It made them worth almost $700 — enough to book two cheap flights and pay for all but $2 of our car rental. With the points used up, I later canceled the card before the annual fee was due (the first year was free).
Frontier Airlines had the best price at $234 round trip for each ticket (18,720 points), but it wasn’t in the Citibank booking system. The next cheapest would have been $100 more per ticket, but on a hunch I called the booking center rather than booking online.
They got me the Frontier tickets, and a car rental even cheaper than what I had found.
Lesson learned: Call and ask about your options.
Book Odd-Hours Flights
Travel time on your departure and return dates typically leaves you with less than four days to enjoy on a four-night vacation.
Flying at odd hours is one solution. You can often find cheaper fares and save money by reducing the number of hotel nights you need.
For example, we flew out of Tampa at 7:30 a.m. and arrived in Denver at 9:30 a.m. after a four-hour flight, thanks to the time difference . The early start let us enjoy the whole first day.
Our return flight left Denver at 11:59 p.m., so we had the entire last day to enjoy, too. We slept a little on the plane and caught up at home.
Booking early and late got us the cheapest tickets and a full five days of vacation with only four nights out. Plus, we only fully paid for one hotel night, thanks to credit card points and a visit with friends.
Find Cheaper Airport Parking
It costs $18 per day to park at Tampa International Airport — which totaled $108 for us, since we returned to the car the sixth day.
But a search online turned up a highly rated nearby parking lot. It charged us just $40 and had shuttles to and from the airport at all hours.
Check prices and the reviews — you don’t want an off-site parking company to make you miss your flight.
Avoid Additional Fees and Costs
Additional airline charges add up quick. Airlines charge from $25 to $60 for carry-on bags — each way!
We made sure our backpacks were smaller than 18-by-14-by-8 inches, so they counted as no-charge “personal items.”
We discovered it’s $2 for a bottle of water or soda on the plane on the Denver flight. We brought empty bottles through security and filled them at a drinking fountain before boarding the return flight.
Some airlines charges for selecting your seats — which we’d never pay. Turns out, we were assigned exit row seats with extra leg room. We’ve never been separated, but it’s a possibility when you don’t pay to select seats.
Unless you travel light and simple like us, check on the extra charges before booking your tickets. It might be cheaper to pay for a more expensive flight on an airline that doesn’t charge for carry-on bags.
Eat Lunch, Skip Dinner
To save money, make lunch the day’s big meal. Eating at a buffet helps, too.
To save even more, buy food and drinks in grocery stores. In addition to being cheaper, it’s nice to have food in the car when you can’t find a decent restaurant. Find a place with a great view and have a picnic.
Choose Inexpensive Activities
There are many things to do when spending time on the beach. When staying on the resort, the entertainment is provided daily from sun up to sun down.
Another great option for saving money on activities, is just doing one excursion per vacation. If you take shorter vacations, 5 days, 4 nights, it won’t feel like you have spent time being idle.
But if you focus on cheap and free activities, you’ll save money to spend on the expensive stuff. Or you’ll never even get around to them because you’re having so much fun.