Categories
Airport

Heading to the Airport? Use This Pre-Flight Checklist

If you’ve booked an airline ticket for an upcoming trip, heading to the airport may be an anxiety-inducing experience. Whether you’re an avid flyer or an infrequent one, there are a slew of fees to keep track of, plus security protocols that may seem overwhelming.

Fear not. This handy flight checklist will help you get to the airport, through security, and to your gate with ease.

Before You Leave Your House

Before you even start to pack, consult this packing list to make sure you’re well prepared.

  • Check in online to avoid a long wait at the airport. You can usually check in online up to 24 hours before your flight.
  • Find out if your carrier charges extra baggage fees if you check your bags in person at the airport. Save yourself time and money by checking your bags online at home before you go.
  • Verify what the airline’s weight limits are for baggage. To avoid extra fees, weigh your bags at home using a small luggage scale. If they are overweight, remove or redistribute some items, or plan to pay extra.
  • Make sure you have all your travel documentation in one place (purse, carry-on, etc.) that’s easy to access. Add your hotel and airline’s phone numbers as well as the emergency number at your destination into your phone.
  • Make extra copies of important travel documents, ID/passports, key phone numbers, etc. It’s advised to have a copy for each bag.
  • If you’re traveling with a carry-on bag, make sure there are no full-size toiletries inside. All liquids and gels must adhere by the 3-1-1 rule, and be stored in a clear plastic quart-sized bag. For more information, see Airport Security Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Ensure you’re not traveling with any prohibited items. If you were planning on bringing such items with you, ship them instead—otherwise they’ll be confiscated at the airport.

At the Check-in Gate

Once you’ve arrived at the airport, you may need to head to the check-in gate, depending on what you did online before you left your home.

  • If you’ve checked in online, drop off your baggage (if applicable) and head to the security line.
  • If you haven’t checked in online prior to arrival, check in at a kiosk or in person at a check-in desk.
  • After checking in by kiosk, drop off bags at the appropriate counter.
  • Add your baggage claim receipt to your collection of travel documents. If you have connecting flights, especially those on separate carriers, it’s especially important to keep your baggage claim tag with you to avoid any delays or snafus.
  • Get your ID and boarding pass out for the security line.
  • Be sure to throw away any bottles of water, cups of coffee, or other liquids or gels that may be confiscated at security.

[st_related]How to Cope with Lost Luggage on Vacation[/st_related]

At Security

Take stock of the following steps before getting in the security line.

  • Have your ID and boarding pass out and ready for the TSA official.
  • Take off your shoes, belt, and any jewelry that may set off the metal detector. Make sure there is no loose change or other items in your pockets. Place all items in a bin on the conveyor belt. (Note that you can skip some of these steps if you have TSA PreCheck or Global Entry.)
  • If you have a clear plastic bag of liquids or gels in your carry-on bag, take it out and place it in a bin next to your shoes, belt, etc.
  • Place your bags and coat on the conveyor belt.
  • If you are traveling with a laptop, take it out of its carrier case and onto the screening belt. If your laptop is in a checkpoint-friendly case, it does not need to be removed from its outer bag.
  • Wait until you are called to go through the metal detector or full-body scanner. If asked, show the TSA official your ID and boarding pass. Acceptable forms of ID include passports, driver’s licenses, military IDs, and permanent resident cards, among a few others. (Make sure your ID is compliant with REAL ID requirements.)
  • Comply with any TSA official requests, such as an additional bag inspection or personal screening.
  • Reclaim your items and head toward the gate.

[st_related]10 Things Not to Do at Airport Security[/st_related]

At the Gate

You’re almost done. Before you board the plane, check the following:

  • Make sure your carry-on fits the aircraft’s overhead dimensions. Usually there is a sample crate at your gate to determine if your bag will fit.
  • Check to see if there is meal or snack service onboard your flight. If not, you may want to purchase food and drink from a concessionaire in your terminal or at a food court.
  • Wait for your clearance to board the plane, then make sure to get in line with your designated group (check your boarding pass to see which group you’re in). If you have small children or special needs, you may be able to get advanced boarding privileges. See the gate agent if you have any questions.

Do you have any expert tips for how to prep for a trip to the airport, as well as how to handle check-ins and security? Share your own airport checklist below.

More from SmarterTravel:

[amazon_native_ad search=”carry-on bags”]

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2010. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Booking Strategy Senior Travel Student Travel

Best (and Worst) Travel Discount Programs

In response to my recent story on travel rip-offs, many of you wrote in to add travel discount programs to the list. Specifically, membership- or buy-in programs promising travel discounts, freebies, and more seemed to have left you with buyers’ remorse. Common complaints included lackluster perks, inflated pricing, and sneaky “gotcha” policies.

“Many of the promised ‘free entry’ venues were free to all, anyway!” wrote reader meg.

“I ordered an Entertainment Book on sale last year,” says reader mik. “What they did not tell me is that buying the book includes a ‘membership’ which means they automatically sent me a full priced book this year and then wanted to charge me return shipping to send it back.”

So, what’s the latest with these discount programs? Are there any that actually deliver on their promises to the customer, or are most not worth purchasing? I did a bit of digging to find out.

CityPass

I put CityPass to the test in three different cities: New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. At first glance, the passes appear to offer good deals.

City CityPass Price A la Carte Attractions Admissions Best Value
New York $79 per adult $124 CityPass saves $45/person
Chicago $69 per adult $121 CityPass saves $52/person
San Francisco $64 per adult $122 CityPass saves $58/person

From a purely monetary standpoint, the CityPasses will save you money compared to buying all the admission fees individually. But let’s put emphasis on the all here: With each respective pass, take a closer look at the offerings to see if they appeal to you. It’s great that you’ll be getting a discount, but if most of the attractions don’t interest you, you’re not getting much value. Additionally, if you have limited time (e.g., just a weekend, say, rather than a week or two to explore), you may not be able to hit every attraction, or at best have limited time at each one as you rush to take them all in.{{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}In short, use critical and realistic judgment, taking time, logistics, and interests into consideration when shopping for a CityPass. If you like the offerings and have enough time to see them all, CityPass can be a great deal. If you’re not interested in some of the attractions or are crunched for time, you might want to consider going a la carte.

AAA

Many travelers tend to take advantage of AAA‘s travel discount program, particularly in regard to hotel stays. While you can often get a few bucks knocked off a hotel’s per-night rate, be sure to shop around before choosing the AAA rate to ensure it’s the lowest or best fit for you.

I tested AAA prices against other rate classes at several hotels in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. In two cases (New York and Chicago), I found the AAA rate was equal to the hotels’ other promotional prices, and in San Francisco the AAA price was the lowest available. Additionally, I found that the AAA rate offered greater flexibility than some of the other sales, in that the only requirement was presenting the card at check-in. Some of the properties’ other sale rates required payment in advance, no cancellations or refunds, and other restrictions.

In short, every property is different and may have a variety of pricing structures. Do a little legwork to see what else is on hand before booking. While you may find the AAA rate fits your budget, there may be other sales that offer lower prices—you’ll only know if you do a bit of advance research.

AARP

AARP’s “discounts” are the most disingenuous of the programs I researched. On the AARP travel website, you’ll see an “AARP Travel Center” reservations area, affiliated with Expedia. I tested a variety of hotels to see if senior-only special offers or discounts were featured in the search results, and found in most cases they were not—the AARP results were nearly identical with Expedia.com’s own sale offerings for almost every property I checked.

As with AAA, you’ll have to do a bit of digging to determine if AARP’s discounts offer a good value. Don’t assume the first price you see is the lowest, whether you’ve found it on AARP or elsewhere. Compare prices among a variety of providers, and call companies directly to see if senior discounts or other sales (open to anyone) are available.

Student Advantage

The Student Advantage card offers a host of student discounts at retailers around the country, with travel providers such as American Airlines, Amtrak, Choice Hotels, and more represented.

The card costs $20 for a one-year membership, $30 for two years, $40 for three years, and $50 for four years. Here’s where the value proposition comes in: Do you think you’ll use the card enough to offset the sign-up cost? Do you think the perks, once purchased, are worth the membership fees? (Many travel providers offer discounts ranging from 5 to 25 percent off, with some restrictions, black-out dates, etc.)

Browse the available offers with a critical eye to see if you frequently visit participating retailers. If you do, signing up might be worth it. If you don’t, you may want to forego membership and search for non-member deals.

Entertainment Books

Entertainment books offer a variety of discounts throughout a specific region and/or city (e.g., Las Vegas, Orlando, Hawaii, and the like). Each book’s coupons are valid throughout the current calendar year and retail for $35. Additionally, once you’ve purchased your book, you’ll receive a link to a dedicated discount section of Entertainment’s website, where you can print additional coupons not found in the print edition.

Like Student Advantage, the Entertainment pay-for-discounts model requires careful consideration. You can see previews of current offers on the Entertainment website before you buy, as well as a breakdown of what types of retailers are offering discounts. Whether the discounts are a good value, appeal to your tastes, and the purchase price is affordable, is up to you.

Your Turn

Have you found membership and/or pre-purchase discounts to offer good deals? Or do you think they’re rip-offs? Share your thoughts by submitting a comment below!

(Editor’s Note: SmarterTravel.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.)

Planning a Vacation, But Unsure Where to Go? Help Is a Click Away!

Forrester Research recently reported that one in five travelers wants to take a trip, but is at a loss about where to go. If you’re one of that 20 percent seeking inspiration, you’re in luck! A host of new online tools have been built just for you. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Travelmuse: Enter your departure city, season you want to travel, and budget, then your preferred trip themes, activities, and mode of transportation. The search results will be tailored to your preferences and prices.
  • Wanderfly: Start with your departure city and interests, then complete your search with a projected budget, time of year, and trip duration. The rich photography on this site is enough to inspire wanderlust.
  • CheapFlights’ Inspiration: If you’re really undecided, this bare-bones inspiration tool offers limited questions to get you started. Enter your departure city; whether you want to travel in the next 30, 60, or 90 days; and if you’re interested in a trip geared toward beaches, cities, family, adventure, ski & snow, or any of the aforementioned.

No site is perfect (one suggested New Jersey to me as a prime hiking destination), but for overall inspiration, these are great places to get started. Which sites do you find best for trip-planning ideas?

Categories
Beach

Saving sand dollars: How to plan an affordable beach vacation

If you’ve decided to go to the beach this year, you may be worried about spending a lot of money. But you don’t have to liquidate your savings account to afford a waterfront vacation. Here are some strategies to help you plan an enjoyable, inexpensive trip to the beach.

Getting started

Before going to the beach, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What beach do I want to visit?
  2. How much do I want to spend?
  3. What type of accommodations should I choose?
  4. Do I need a rental car?
  5. Would a vacation package save money?

1. What beach do I want to visit?

The U.S. has a plethora of beach options on both coasts, plus the Hawaiian islands, and no two regions are alike. Decide if you want a beach packed with people and of nightlife options, like Miami’s South Beach; one with boardwalk activities, like Ocean City, MD; or a more remote, private beach, like Wells, Maine.

To help find a beach that’s perfect for you, visit a beach guide site such as SurfSun.com or the Travel Channel’s America’s Best Beaches listings.

Finally, before you finalize plans, make sure to check that the beach you’ve picked is clean and open for public use. Check beach water quality at Earth 911 or overall quality ratings on the EPA website.

2. How much do I want to spend?

Take into account all transportation expenses, including airfare or train tickets, gas for your car or rental car fees, and public transportation costs (if applicable) once you get to your destination.

Factor in miscellany: shopping at seaside boutiques, beauty treatments, entrance fees at boardwalk attractions, or drinks and cover charges at clubs. If you’re active, consider the charges of renting surf boards or bicycles, or the cost of acquiring car equipment (roof racks, tows for boats and Jetskis) if you’re bringing your own gear.

Other expenses may come up: Some beaches charge parking and entrance fees, particularly for nonresidents. To find out if such charges will apply, call the local tourism bureau of the beach town you plan on visiting.

3. What type of accommodations should I choose?

As your accommodations choice could mean the difference between being thrifty or extravagant, this decision requires some legwork. Do you want resort accommodations, a vacation rental, a simple hotel, or a campsite?

For example, if you’re traveling with friends, a vacation rental (with the cost shared among many) may be an affordable option. Or, if you want everything taken care of for you, an all-inclusive resort might be your best bet. Also decide whether you want to stay right on the beach, as this may be pricier, or in a more affordable spot that’s not as close to the water.

Determine how much you want to spend for meals each day and whether you plan on eating out, preparing meals in your vacation rentals, or picnicking. Depending on your preference, you can spend as much or as little as you want.

4. Do I need a rental car?

If you decide to rent a car, determine the vehicle size youÃ?’d like to rent, how many days you will need it, and if you are eligible for any discounts (AAA, AARP, or other club membership; coupons; etc.). Always make sure you book well in advance and read the fine print in your contract. If you are attempting to book a promotional rate, double-check availability dates to make sure the sale is valid for when you need your car. And, if you’re outdoorsy, remember to add in the extra cost of getting equipment to accommodate boats and Jetskis, or consider renting a larger vehicle such as an SUV or minivan with extra space for all your gear. Check car deals on SmarterTravel.com for current offers.

5. Would a vacation package save money?

Consider an air-hotel-and-car vacation package if you prefer the convenience of one-stop shopping, which can often save you money over booking trip components separately.

Vacation packages for popular beach destinations can be researched on major travel websites such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity. You can also check SmarterTravel.com for the latest vacation package deals. However, if your destination is off the beaten path, youÃ?’ll find the best deals on the town or regionÃ?’s visitor bureau websites, or you can call them directly. DonÃ?’t forget to check CVB sites for major tourist destinations as well, as they may offer exclusive deals not found on popular travel sites.

Be flexible

If you’re not finding good prices for your first-choice travel dates, consider cheaper off-peak dates or discounted last-minute fares. For example, FloridaÃ?’s low season is in the summer, as the majority of its tourists visit in winter to escape snowy weather back home. In addition, last-minute fares, even for the beach, are available, usually on a weekly basis. You can check last-minute hotel and car deals on the websites of leading hotel and rental car providers. Or, search SmarterTravel.com for the latest last-minute deals, updated each week.

In planning your dream beach vacation, try to be as flexible as possible. Give yourself ample time to research and book, as popular beach destinations such as Cape Cod fill up quickly. Once youÃ?’re there, youÃ?’ll be able to relax fully, knowing your vacationÃ?’s memories will last a lifetime, and the bills will not.

Great Castles (You Can Sleep In)

Storming the gates, crossing the drawbridge, surveying your estate from a grand tower. No, we’re not talking about visiting a period movie set or theme park. We’re talking about the bona fide real deal: Spending your vacation like royalty at a castle hotel. From classic medieval towers in Germany to a French-inspired chateau in Argentina, castles offer unique and unforgettable alternatives to standard accommodations. While many are a splurge (some royal reputations last for centuries, after all), others are surprisingly affordable, starting at $100 or less per night. We’ve rounded up castles you can sleep in from countries both near and far. Take a look at our top picks, and don’t forget to share your favorites in the comments section under each photo.

You vs. the TSA: How to Survive an Invasive Pat-Down

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To go through the security scanner or get a pat-down? Many travelers grapple with this question each time they go to the airport. I know many of you are skittish about the body scanners found at airports around the world, yet the alternative of pat-downs also may hold little appeal.

How do you determine which option works better for you? Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules, says Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel, ACLU: “If you can’t bear the thought of someone seeing a naked photo of you, avoid the scanner. If you don’t want to be touched, the scanner is a better option over a pat-down. It’s a choice between two not-great options, and each person will have to decide which is better based on their own preferences.”

The best advice, then, is to stay abreast of the latest news, know your options, and be pro-active (even when you’re not traveling) to get informed and make the best decision for you. Here’s what you need to know when you get to the security line.

Before You Go

First, familiarize yourself with the scanner process, both from safety and privacy viewpoints. A new study at the University of California, San Francisco, determined that the scanner radiation risk is trivial. The report goes in-depth regarding fears about radiation exposure, cancer risks, and other health concerns. You’ll also want to understand, as well, any privacy issues that have come up in the past (particularly regarding photograph storage).

If you’re wholly opposed to the scanners, you can check in advance to see if your preferred airport has them. If they do, you could try to re-route your trip to utilize an airport where the technology is not yet in place. Currently, “image technology screens are at 78 airports out of 450,” says TSA spokesperson Sarah Horowitz. “For passengers who are not traveling out of one of those airports, or even [if they are], the technology is not at every lane in those airports.” You can find a full list of airports with the scanner technology on the TSA website.

Additionally, know what the pat-down will entail. While Horowitz wouldn’t outline the process with me for “security reasons,” the ACLU website says travelers can expect a TSA official will examine your head, around your collar and waistband, and “may use the front or back of his or her hands to feel your body, including buttocks, around breasts, and between the legs, feeling up to the top of the thigh.” Those with tight or restrictive clothing may be asked to remove said clothing in a private screening area. The TSA official who inspects you, both in public and private screenings, will always be of the same gender.

If You Scan

You’ve arrived at the airport, checked in for your flight, and gotten in line at security. If you’ve decided to go through the scanner and avoid a pat-down, take a minute to take off any potentially problematic items.

“Remove all items from pockets and certain accessories that would set off a metal detector,” says Horowitz. “Wallets, belts, jewelry, money, keys—removing those items will reduce the need for additional screening.” Have these items go through the baggage belt with your luggage while you go through the scanner.

All travelers refusing the scanner or a metal detector will automatically receive a pat-down. However, if you opt for the scanner and an “anomaly” is detected, you will receive both.

If You Get a Pat-Down

If you do choose a pat-down, you’re not entirely without options. Before the pat-down procedure, you can:

  • Request a private screening area
  • Ask for a family member or friend to accompany you
  • Notify the TSA agent about any special needs (e.g., medical devices) or religious concerns (e.g., head coverings, etc.)

Ideally, a pat-down procedure should take between two and four minutes, says Horowitz. Given the pace of airport infrastructure, however, it’s always a good rule of thumb to budget a little extra time if you’re going to choose a pat-down in the security line.

Post-Trip Action

If you had an unpleasant experience, or if the current security procedures just don’t sit well with you, get involved even when you don’t have a trip planned. “If you want real change, the best thing to do is to call your congressman,” says Calabrese. “Say there has to be an alternative to either the naked pictures from the scanner or getting groped with a pat-down.”

Besides contacting your representative, you can also file a civil rights complaint directly with the Department of Homeland Security, as well as with the ACLU.

“As travelers, you shouldn’t have to check your dignity at the security gate,” Calabrese continues. “We shouldn’t have to choose between two undesirable options, which unfortunately are the only options for travelers nowadays.”

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Categories
Airport

You vs. TSA: How to Choose Between Body Scanners and Pat-Downs

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To go through the security scanner or get a pat-down? Many travelers grapple with this question each time they go to the airport. I know many of you are skittish about the body scanners found at airports around the world, yet the alternative of pat-downs also may hold little appeal.

How do you determine which option works better for you? Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules, says Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel, ACLU: “If you can’t bear the thought of someone seeing a naked photo of you, avoid the scanner. If you don’t want to be touched, the scanner is a better option over a pat-down. It’s a choice between two not-great options, and each person will have to decide which is better based on their own preferences.”

The best advice, then, is to stay abreast of the latest news, know your options, and be pro-active (even when you’re not traveling) to get informed and make the best decision for you. Here’s what you need to know when you get to the security line.

Before You Go

First, familiarize yourself with the scanner process, both from safety and privacy viewpoints. A new study at the University of California, San Francisco, determined that the scanner radiation risk is trivial. The report goes in-depth regarding fears about radiation exposure, cancer risks, and other health concerns. You’ll also want to understand, as well, any privacy issues that have come up in the past (particularly regarding photograph storage).

If you’re wholly opposed to the scanners, you can check in advance to see if your preferred airport has them. If they do, you could try to re-route your trip to utilize an airport where the technology is not yet in place. Currently, “image technology screens are at 78 airports out of 450,” says TSA spokesperson Sarah Horowitz. “For passengers who are not traveling out of one of those airports, or even [if they are], the technology is not at every lane in those airports.” You can find a full list of airports with the scanner technology on the TSA website.

Additionally, know what the pat-down will entail. While Horowitz wouldn’t outline the process with me for “security reasons,” the ACLU website says travelers can expect a TSA official will examine your head, around your collar and waistband, and “may use the front or back of his or her hands to feel your body, including buttocks, around breasts, and between the legs, feeling up to the top of the thigh.” Those with tight or restrictive clothing may be asked to remove said clothing in a private screening area. The TSA official who inspects you, both in public and private screenings, will always be of the same gender.

If You Scan

You’ve arrived at the airport, checked in for your flight, and gotten in line at security. If you’ve decided to go through the scanner and avoid a pat-down, take a minute to take off any potentially problematic items.

“Remove all items from pockets and certain accessories that would set off a metal detector,” says Horowitz. “Wallets, belts, jewelry, money, keys—removing those items will reduce the need for additional screening.” Have these items go through the baggage belt with your luggage while you go through the scanner.

All travelers refusing the scanner or a metal detector will automatically receive a pat-down. However, if you opt for the scanner and an “anomaly” is detected, you will receive both.

If You Get a Pat-Down

If you do choose a pat-down, you’re not entirely without options. Before the pat-down procedure, you can:

  • Request a private screening area
  • Ask for a family member or friend to accompany you
  • Notify the TSA agent about any special needs (e.g., medical devices) or religious concerns (e.g., head coverings, etc.)

Ideally, a pat-down procedure should take between two and four minutes, says Horowitz. Given the pace of airport infrastructure, however, it’s always a good rule of thumb to budget a little extra time if you’re going to choose a pat-down in the security line.

Post-Trip Action

If you had an unpleasant experience, or if the current security procedures just don’t sit well with you, get involved even when you don’t have a trip planned. “If you want real change, the best thing to do is to call your congressman,” says Calabrese. “Say there has to be an alternative to either the naked pictures from the scanner or getting groped with a pat-down.”

Besides contacting your representative, you can also file a civil rights complaint directly with the Department of Homeland Security, as well as with the ACLU.

“As travelers, you shouldn’t have to check your dignity at the security gate,” Calabrese continues. “We shouldn’t have to choose between two undesirable options, which unfortunately are the only options for travelers nowadays.”

Your Turn

What have your experiences been at the security line? Are you a fan of the scanners? How would you improve airport security? Tell us your opinions by leaving a comment below!

Need Vacation Ideas? We Can Help!

At SmarterTravel, we often get queries from readers who are ready to take a vacation—any vacation. You know you want to get away, but are looking for inspiration beyond cookie-cutter options. That’s where we’d like to better serve you, the undecided traveler.

To do so, please take our brief survey on trip-planning preferences. There are only five questions, and it should take no more than five minutes of your time.

To access the survey, click on the following link: http://www.zoomerang.com/Survey/WEB22C7DTXDXK8

Additionally, there are already many intriguing websites out there that can help. Here’s what SmarterTravel’s consumer travel expert, Ed Perkins, writes in a recent column:

“If, at any given time, you know where you want to go and want to check out dates when you can fly there at the lowest fares, the websites of most big online travel agencies, aggregators, and individual airlines provide ‘flexible date’ search systems:

  • Typically, you enter an origin city, a destination, and a date, and the site returns a grid of dates and fares for a month before and a month after the original date.
  • Cheap Tickets, Expedia, Hotwire, and Orbitz also give the option of entering a starting date and a trip duration (in days); the site returns a grid of options for up to 30 days in advance. Travelocity’s comparable system can cover up to three months in advance, but the display requires a lot of iteration and is more cumbersome.
  • Other sites, including Kayak, provide only plus-or-minus three day searches, and I couldn’t find any flexible search capabilities on Mobissimo or Vayama.

As another approach, you can sign up on several online sites—airline and agency—for bulletins on when fares drop to any given destination. Alternatively, you can place as many very low bids as you want on Priceline, varying the dates, to take ‘pot luck’ on an airline and schedule.

Finding the best time to get the lowest fares is an entirely different matter. By now you should have heard that nobody can claim to forecast the ups and downs of airfares, except in a very general way related to the cost of oil. What we do know is that airlines periodically offer fare sales, and many of them are available for just one day.

Whether you know where you want to go or are just interested in good deals, your best bet is probably to subscribe to one or more sale-alert services, such as are available on SmarterTravel, that send out airfare bulletins announcing sales and other time-sensitive fare information. Many individual airlines and the big online travel agencies provide similar services. Some are general; others require that you specify a route or a destination. Be prepared to act when you see something good before it disappears.

If you need help deciding where you might like to go, several sites provide assistance, including Best Trip Choices, TravelMuse, and Wanderfly.”

What did you think of Ed Perkins’ take? As always, we’d love to hear more feedback—either on these recommendations or on this topic in general. For you undecided travelers, where do you start your trip research? What features are you most looking for in a travel research site? Share your best tips and wish lists by leaving a comment below—and remember, take our quick three-question survey to help us help you!

Survey link: http://www.zoomerang.com/Survey/WEB22C7DTXDXK8

Categories
Miscellany

America’s Most Stress-Free Airports

In the grand scheme of things, going to the airport is about as relaxing as a visit to the dentist or the DMV. But here’s where you might be surprised: Hidden around the country, sometimes in plain sight, are airports that are working hard to give travelers a pleasant and even (dare we say it?) enjoyable travel experience. We compared airports from coast to coast and chose 10 that stood out with traveler-friendly amenities, hassle-free security, laid-back atmospheres, and fun diversions ranging from great shopping to art galleries. Check out our picks for America’s most stress-free airports, and be sure to tell us about your own favorites in the comments section under each photo.

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Categories
Weekend Getaways

Undecided About Where to Go Next?

We know that many aspiring travelers are itching to take a trip, but can get overwhelmed with all the possibilities. Should you stay local or go abroad? Scrimp or splurge? Relax on the beach or hike in the mountains?

To better serve you, our readers, please tell us a little bit about what’s important to you when planning a vacation by taking a brief survey about your trip-planning preferences. There are only three questions, and it should take no more than five minutes of your time.

To access the survey, click on the following link: http://www.zoomerang.com/Survey/WEB22C4SF4T234/

Also, we’d love to hear more feedback. For you undecided travelers, where do you start your trip research? What features are you most looking for in a travel research site? Share your best tips and wish lists by leaving a comment below!

Survey link: http://www.zoomerang.com/Survey/WEB22C4SF4T234/

 

Europe Made Easy: Everything You Need to Plan a Trip

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Thinking of heading to Europe this year? A tough economy makes it all the more important to plan your trip wisely. Not to worry—I’m here to help! Follow these common-sense strategies, and you’ll be heading overseas in the near future (and with a little extra money in your pocket, too).
Know Which Destinations Are In Demand

I spoke with representatives from three major Europe vacation providers to find out which destinations are attracting the crowds this year. If your preferred destination is on the hot list, you’ll want to start bargain hunting now (if you haven’t already).

“London, Paris, and the cities of Italy—Rome, Florence, and Venice—are always in high demand,” says Paula McKay, president of Go-today.com. “We are also seeing a lot of interest in Barcelona this year.”

“Italy and Spain, [particularly] Venice, Florence, Rome, Madrid, Barcelona, and Andalucia, are where we’re seeing the biggest growth,” says Marty Seslow, VP of Marketing, Gate 1 Travel. “Those are not necessarily the destinations that have the best prices or overall value, but they’ve definitely had the best demand.”

“Business to Britain is up 30 percent so far, year over year,” says Nigel Osborne, president, Virgin Vacations. “U.K. is number one, Italy number two, then France number three.”

Every supplier I spoke with said the royal wedding in London is not showing the increased interest initially expected—most likely as a result of inflated prices. “I think if anything the [U.K.] destinations will get a bump from the publicity, but I just don’t think it’s going to be around that date,” says Seslow.

If you’re planning a vacation to Britain, France, Italy, or Spain, the bargains do exist, but only for the most dedicated of sleuths.

Track Down the Best Deals

“If the deal is right, people will travel,” says Osborne. Take this as your own personal mantra, and let the deals be your guide.

The earlier you get started, the better—Osborne recommends booking your vacation three to five months in advance, where as Seslow suggested five to eight months’ lead time. The main reason? Oil. With fluctuating fuel prices, it’s a good idea to lock in your airfare once you’ve found a price that fits your budget, as it’s likely only to go up as summer approaches. Last-minute deals will be scarce this year, as there’s been no diminished interest in travel, and thus no incentive to move unsold inventory.

When planning, consider the following:

Seasonality trumps all: “It’s all about season,” says Seslow. “If someone is willing to travel during a shoulder or low season, they’re definitely going to get a much better price. You can still be in Europe in November and in March, which is considered low season, and the weather is still good and the crowds are lower.” Summer will always be the busiest, and subsequently the most expensive time to travel. If you have flexibility in your schedule, take your vacation during a different season and take advantage of the savings.

Look for new routes: “London fares are all over the place at the moment because Delta announced expansion [there] from Boston, New York City, and Washington,” says Osborne. “Continental has increased capacity as well with the new United merger. Travelers will be able to get some fairly good deals across the Pond.” Check your preferred airline to see if new service is being offered in the coming months, as expanded routes tend to be coupled with affordable introductory fares to drum up new business.

Broaden your airport search—even if it means an extra flight: “If folks are living in a major gateway, like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, they have competition and multiple choices,” says Seslow. “But in secondary markets, that competition dwindles. We’ve found there are a decent number of [travelers in smaller cities] who wind up buying a low-cost domestic ticket on their own, to Atlanta, New York, or Chicago from their smaller town and then take advantage of the better options from the bigger town. That’s always something that’s been a possibility, [but] it seems like it’s becoming increasingly a better option.” So if you’re traveling from Pittsburgh to Paris, for example, don’t just look at flights between the two, as you may actually spend more money than, say, taking Southwest from Pittsburgh to Chicago or New York, and then a major carrier to Paris.

Maximize your hotel schedule: “Hotels tend to give better rates if you arrive on a Sunday,” says Osborne. “Their local leisure traffic stays Friday and Saturday night and they leave, and the business [travelers] don’t arrive until Monday. So most hotels have empty Sunday nights and they like to get people to stay [then].”

McKay also suggests looking at a variety of hotel classes, as you might be surprised by what you can afford. “Look at location and star classification, and decide what fits your travel style best. While the lead-in price might be really cheap, there is usually great value when upgrading to a four-star property,” she says. Looking at what each hotel offers (taking amenities, daily breakfast, and the like into account) can help you determine the best fit for your budget.

Consider cruising: “The major cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean, have more ships over in Europe,” says Seslow. “If [travelers] book a cruise as their vacation, they can hit multiple destinations, meals are included, and they’re spending a lot less money than the overpriced hotel accommodations in many of these main destinations. And you’re paying upfront in U.S. dollars, so there’s no currency exchange fees or issues.”

Finally, do a little pre-sightseeing legwork. “It’s best to purchase sightseeing tours in advance of your trip,” says McKay. “You’ll avoid long lines on the ground, saving valuable vacation time.” You may also get an advance-purchase discount by ordering attractions admissions before you depart.

Get Great Values Once You’ve Arrived

It’s great to find a deal, but it’s even better to be a cost-conscious consumer once you’re in-country. Follow these recommendations and you’ll get the most out of your trip abroad.

  • Avoid public transit or taxi sticker shock by using hop/on-hop/off buses like your personal chauffeurs. “Work it out within your schedule as a part taxi service,” says Osborne. “That way, you don’t have to buy a tube card or take a taxi.” Study the hop/on-hop/off bus schedule and sightseeing map, then plan your day’s explorations accordingly.
  • If you have a multi-city itinerary, choose rail over low-cost carriers. You’ll see the countryside, have easier point-to-point connections, and enjoy fee-free travel. Ryanair is notorious for nickel-and-diming travelers—with the train, you may have a longer trip, but the convenience of downtown train terminals, no baggage fees, a snack car, extra legroom, and other amenities make the experience an overall better value.
  • Plan your meals wisely. “Everybody wants to try a fancy restaurant in a new city,” says Osborne. “Go for the luncheon special rather than dinner and it’s usually half the price.” Osborne also recommends European department stores for an “elegant self-service lunch” on a budget. Harrod’s, Marks and Spencer, and Printemps Paris all offer refined lunch counters. You can also check with your store of choice to see if you can snag a meal at a bargain.

Your Turn

Are you planning a trip to Europe in 2011? What are your best savings strategies?

Categories
Adventure Travel Beach Island

10 Tropical Destinations You Need to Visit at Least Once

Lush rainforests, savannahs teeming with wildlife, fertile farmlands, and a diverse population of mammalian and plant life. Sound good? If so, a tropical vacation might be perfect for you. The tropics are irresistible to vacationers who like to go to the beach, but also want a little something extra, be it hiking, zip-lining, or snorkeling. We’ve rounded up 10 of the world’s best tropical destinations, both near and far. Read on to start dreaming about (and planning) your own tropical escape.

 

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Tips for Securing a Perfect Vacation Rental in 2011

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A water view—without having to request an upgrade. A full pot of fresh-brewed coffee each morning. The flexibility to cook your own meals or dine out if you wish. If these descriptions appeal to you, you might be one of a growing segment of travelers considering a vacation rental in 2011.

Each year, it seems the vacation rentals market gets a little bigger. There’s growing awareness among readers and fellow media, and (dare I say it?) I think rental properties are finally on their way to going mainstream.

There are some new players on the scene, though. So even if you’re familiar with vacation rentals, you’ll want to read on to see what’s in store in the year ahead.

New This Year

“We’re expecting the popularity of vacation rentals to continue to grow even more rapidly than it has in the past few years,” says Brian Chesky, CEO and co-founder of Airbnb, one of the new sites that’s generating a lot of buzz for its fresh approach to booking accommodations.

Imagine a mash-up between couch-surfing sites (such as CouchSurfing.org), traditional vacation rental market sites (such as the HomeAway portfolio of sites), and user-review sites (such as SmarterTravel’s sister site TripAdvisor), and you’ve got Airbnb, a social-driven site where property owners list rooms in their homes, entire homes and/or apartments, and unique rental offerings (e.g., treehouses, castles, private islands, etc.).

Reviews take on an interesting twist—not only can renters leave feedback on the properties themselves, but both owners and renters can evaluate each other. Want to know if a property owner replies in a timely manner? Check the reviews on her profile. Not sure if this renter is legit? Read his profile to see what other owners have said.

“We don’t just connect people to spaces, we connect people to people,” says Chesky. “Authentic, two-sided reviews allow hosts and guests to build trusted reputations on Airbnb. Host and guest profiles and messaging allow people to share important information about themselves before booking.”

Another trend among newcomers is the talking up of “curated” properties. Sites such as Inhabit Vacations (which currently focuses on the San Francisco Bay area) list vacation rentals that come with the stamp of staff approval. The human approval factor is the distinguishing feature: When you book, you know you’re getting a vetted property, not just one from an aggregated list.

Hoteliers don’t want to be left behind in this growing market, either. If you’re interested in the perks of a rental, but don’t want to give up all the amenities of a hotel, try researching hotel-branded properties, which may include some of the customer service perks you expect on a vacation.

“As vacation rentals become increasingly popular, rental companies such as our ResortQuest business, are offering more ‘hotel-like’ services and amenities that were traditionally not offered by rentals,” says Geoff Ballotti, president and CEO, Wyndham Exchange & Rentals. “[Think] quality terry and linens, daily maid service, and access to spa, fitness, tennis, and golf facilities.”

“Amenities might include options for child care, free bicycles, private swimming pools, an in-home movie theater with free DVD rentals, or perhaps access to a fitness center or an indoor water park,” says Alex Risser, president of the Vacation Rental Managers Association. “The vacation possibilities are endless. You can also take advantage of vacation rental business relationships with local activity providers, shops, restaurants, tour companies, and more.” Inquire with your rental company or property owner if any affiliated discounts are available for local businesses.

Lastly, this year you may not have to offer cash up front, in one lump sum, for your rental. “Layaway vacation plans are also a growing option, providing installment-based payment plans to secure future trips,” adds Risser. When investigating rental options, this may prove an attractive new development if you’re vacationing on a budget.

Tips for First-Time Renters

Perhaps more than any other segment of travel, vacation rental bookings require some advance research and planning. Once you’ve found a property that interests you, be sure to ask the following questions.

  • Is the property professionally managed or rented by its owners?
  • Is a rental contract required?
  • If not, how will all transactions be handled?
  • Will you need to make a security deposit? What are its return/refund policies?
  • What are the renter’s cancellation policies?
  • What pre-departure steps are required from renters (cleaning, laundering sheets and towels, etc.)?
  • Are there fees for additional guests?

No two rental properties may be alike, although you might experience a more streamlined process working with a management company or larger brand.

“The benefits of renting from a company you can trust with your family, your credit card, and your invaluable vacation time can’t be understated,” says Ballotti. “Book with a company that regularly manages and inspects its properties to ensure they meet a high standard of quality and safety, [as well as] one that offers online bookings and payments, can handle booking amendments and cancellations, and provides impeccable customer service and around-the-clock check-in assistance.”

You can also check user reviews to learn about previous travelers’ experiences with a given rental. Sites that offer user reviews include Airbnb, TripAdvisor, and Flipkey (another of SmarterTravel’s sister sites). The HomeAway sites also feature reviews, star ratings, and guest books from previous visitors, depending on which site you’re browsing.

Additionally, give yourself a bit of lead time when booking. “Travelers nationwide are booking on-average nearly four months ahead of time, which can be a good timeframe if considering visiting during peak seasons,” advises Risser.

Secrets Even Long-Time Renters Can Benefit From

Look to what’s happening in the world (and in your own neighborhood) for insights on demand and availability. “With one of the coldest winters on record, beach destinations have been in high demand,” says Ballotti. He notes that northwest and southwest Florida, the Carolina coast, Crete, and the islands of Mallorca and Menorca have seen an uptick of activity. In addition, with the royal wedding approaching in April, the U.K. has been in demand.

Risser says the top 10 destinations on his radar are California, Florida, Hawaii, Alaska, New York, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Maine, and Texas. If you’re planning to visit a high-demand destination this year, the earlier you plan, the better.

If you’ve booked rentals in the past, you may have been locked into a full week’s stay. That won’t necessarily be the case with with your next rental. “Many vacation rentals are increasingly available now on a nightly basis as opposed to a minimum seven-night booking, which had been the standard in the industry in the past,” says Ballotti. You may find some flexibility, especially during a destination’s low or shoulder-season when renters are looking to sell inventory. Conversely, expect minimum-night requirements to be stricter during peak travel periods.

Finally, make your mobile device work for you. “We released [Airbnb’s] iPhone app in November … to make using [our service] even easier for hosts and travelers alike,” says Chesky. “Hosts can use the app to respond to inquiries, accept reservations, and manage their listings while they are away from their computers. Travelers are by nature on the move and the app allows them to run a one-click search to locate available properties on a map, view or manage itineraries on the go, and book a space to stay with Airbnb no matter where they are in the world.” HomeAway and TripAdvisor also have mobile application features, and you can expect more companies to follow suit.

Your Turn

What vacation rental questions do you have? Do you have any tips for your fellow travelers? Share your expertise by submitting a comment below!

Categories
Booking Strategy Frequent Flyer

The Seven ‘Deadly’ Airline Fees

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Baggage, food, pillows, and more—it seems no airfare transaction is fee-free nowadays. While fees may be here to stay, some are certainly more egregious than others. As we start planning our travels for 2011, let’s revisit the “deadliest” fees in the airline industry, but this time with a twist. We’ve paralleled each of the seven deadly sins with its most appropriate airline fee counterpart—and, of course, we have a few recommendations on how you can avoid paying them, too.

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Lust

How best to describe “lust” in terms of an airline fee? At SmarterTravel, we think charging a fee just to choose your seat fits the bill. Why? Purchasing your seat is the most essential transaction of air travel, yet too many carriers (specifically, Air Canada, AirTran, Allegiant, Continental, Spirit, and US Airways) lust after just a little bit more of your money for allowing you the “privilege” of selecting your own seat. It’s like purchasing a shirt, but then having to pay more to select its color.

The costs aren’t insignificant, either. In some cases you can get charged up to $20 per flight. Additionally, the fact that seat-selection fees have not been adopted industry-wide further exhibits the desperation of the aforementioned airlines, lusting after whatever extra revenue they can squeeze from the flying public.

To avoid paying a seat-selection fee, limit your business to those airlines that don’t penalize you for choosing your seat in advance. You can find a full round-up of airline fees in our always-updated Airline Fees: The Ultimate Guide.

Gluttony

Fuel surcharges for frequent flyer award seats, particularly from British Airways, gets the win for gluttony. Senior Editor Christine Sarkis notes that British Airways’ fuel surcharges are “over the top,” especially in regard to redeeming frequent flyer miles. Sarkis paid more than $400 in fees and taxes for an award ticket, a hefty price for a “free” seat; and frequent flyer expert Tim Winship recently offered advice to a reader expecting to pay more than $700 in British Airways award redemption fees. With your loyal business and participation in British Airways’ frequent flyer program, you’ve done your part. Why the extra fees? With the true definition of gluttony, it seems British Airways just wants more, more, more.

Before you book an award ticket (or better yet, before you choose which loyalty program to join), familiarize yourself with SmarterTravel’s Frequent Flyer Fees: The Ultimate Guide. Currently focusing on domestic travel, this guide offers a quick and handy resource to all the fees associated with award travel, from booking a reward seat to reactivating your miles. This way, you’ll know exactly which airlines charge fees for the services and transactions you’d most expect to use. Don’t see your airline listed there? Visit your preferred carrier’s website and search for its frequent flyer program policies, as well as FAQs. After all, just because an airline is gluttonous doesn’t mean you have to feed its habit.

Greed

Carl Unger, our Today in Travel blogger, loathed American’s Your Choice/Express Seats fee so much that we ultimately deemed it the Worst Fee of the Year for 2010. Starting at $19, the fee enables you to board coach a few minutes before non-fee-paying customers, with no other perks. A true act of greed on American’s part, this fee offers no real value; some may call it a pure money grab.

To avoid this fee, take your chances and simply forgo it. By doing so, you’ll have to board with the rest of the crowd, but most of us do that anyway and live to tell the tale. Sure, your carry-on bag may not make the bin that’s directly overhead, or you may have to stow something extra under your seat. But to still have $20 in your pocket, the “inconvenience” of walking a few paces to an adjacent overhead bin or leaning down to grab your bag may not seem so steep.

Sloth

Two airlines, Ryanair and Spirit, share “sloth” status. With most ticket purchases, travelers are guaranteed a boarding pass. Not so on Ryanair: You’ll pay £5 to check in online or £40 to get your boarding pass at the airport. Spirit, on the other hand, tacks on a $5 fee for booking a ticket both over the phone or online. Basically, if you book a ticket from your home or office, and not in person at the airport, you’ll pay for it. And come on—when was the last time you bought your ticket at the airport? Spirit is banking on the fact that you, like most other travelers, tend to avoid the airport except on your actual travel days. In true slovenly fashion, both Ryanair’s and Spirit’s laziness put the onus on you, the travelers, for your own transactions—and then, with the fees, require you to pay extra to do so, too.

With most airlines, choose online transactions to save yourself booking and related fees. Ryanair, however, should be avoided entirely (as you can’t even get a boarding pass without a fee). If you like Spirit, outsmart their phone- and online-booking fees by purchasing your tickets in person at the airport.

Wrath

It’s pretty mean-spirited to charge a fee for any type of bag you take along. But that’s exactly what Spirit has done by charging fees for virtually every type of baggage, from carry-ons stowed in the overhead bins to checked suitcases. Columnist Ed Perkins called Spirit’s carry-on bag fees a new low for the airline, remarkable for the fact that the ultra-low-cost carrier isn’t exactly known for customer-friendly policies to start. Adopted in early 2010, this fee seems to be here to stay, as pushback from both travelers and the press did little to curb Spirit’s wrathful ways.

If you do still plan on flying Spirit, make sure your baggage can fit under the seat in front of you—a purse, knapsack, or small duffel may fit the bill. It may also cost less to ship your bags ahead of you. A handful of new services cater to budget travelers, and you may find their prices undercut Spirit’s fees. Of course, you can avoid baggage fees entirely by flying with Southwest (first two checked bags free) or JetBlue (first checked bag free).

Envy

Finding the best fee for the “envy” category was a no-brainer: Back in 2008, when American announced it would start charging for all checked bags, they soon became the envy of most other airlines. In response, nearly every major carrier quickly jumped on the checked-bag-fee bandwagon. Worse yet, once the other airlines decided this was a great idea, the actual price tag for the fee jumped, too: First-checked-bags started out around $15; nowadays, you’re likely to pay around $25 apiece for your first- and second-checked bag. The bottom line? Take two people traveling together, each with a checked bag, on a round-trip flight, and you’re adding an extra $100 to your travel costs.

As we mentioned earlier, to avoid baggage fees, choose Southwest or JetBlue when service is available. Or, with the exception of Spirit, try to limit your baggage to a carry-on. You may also want to put in some legwork on your hotel search: Several brands, such as Kimpton and InterContinental Hotels Group, offer luggage-reimbursement programs when you book a minimum-night stay.

Pride

Perhaps you’ve seen Southwest’s latest ad campaign, which uses a courtroom setting to scrutinize other airlines’ ticket change fees. It’s a direct challenge to the competition, as well as an effective tool to position Southwest as a friendly, no nickel-and-diming airline. Yet the other airlines’ response has been, fittingly … no change at all. Indeed, one could say the other airlines are too proud to rescind any fees. So if you’re planning to purchase an air ticket, you know that with most airlines, if you need to change your itinerary, you’re going to get socked with a pricey penalty.

If you want flexibility for an upcoming trip and don’t want to pay to change your ticket, you have a few (limited) options. One is to fly Southwest, the only airline that doesn’t charge any ticket change fees. Another is waiting to book until the last minute, when you’re certain of your plans. (This carries additional risk, though, as a last-minute fare may not always be the most affordable.) Alternatively, you could book the highest-class ticket, where typically itinerary changes don’t incur a fee, although the price of such a ticket may be higher than what you’d pay in fees. Lastly, you could investigate travel insurance options, where your investment is covered in case you need to change plans or cancel. A bit of extra work, in this case, can at least help you work around the costly fee.

Your Turn

What do you think of our list? Which fees do you currently consider the “deadliest?” Share your thoughts by submitting a comment below!

Categories
Beach

Affordable Caribbean? Four Ways to Make it Happen

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A few weeks ago, it was reported that every state in the Union, except for Florida, had snow on the ground. If you’re like me, you’re probably dreaming of a quick escape from the cold, to sunny beaches graced with warm trade winds. (I find myself having these thoughts often as of late, especially while out shoveling snow or during particularly cold and slippery commutes.) What better way to perk up your spirits than to plan a beach vacation?

And now, with many low-cost carriers expanding their route networks to include Florida, the Caribbean, and Mexico, you can head to the beach affordably. Read on for the latest news from low-cost airlines heading to sunny climes, as well as planning tips to help you put together a vacation on the cheap.

New Routes

To drum up interest in a new route, airlines will often list introductory fares at substantial savings. As such, you can often find great deals to the Caribbean, Florida, and Mexico by researching where the low-cost carriers are expanding. {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}

This year, for example, JetBlue is offering new service to Turks and Caicos from both Boston and New York in mid-February; and to San Juan, Puerto Rico, from Jacksonville and Long Beach in mid- and late May. If past behavior is any indication, the introductory prices on these routes will be significantly cheaper than competing prices on the legacy lines. Or, even better, they could spark competition among multiple carriers.

Other airlines expanding to the Caribbean in the near future:

  • Spirit will be adding service to Ft. Lauderdale from Niagara Falls, New York; Latrobe, Pennsylvania; Charleston, West Virginia; and Dallas between now and May, varying by city. Expect low fares as these routes get off the ground.
  • While technically not in the Caribbean, Bermuda is the latest island destination in AirTran‘s route network. Daily flights will be available from Atlanta (May through September) and Baltimore (April through October). Check AirTran’s site in late March and early April for new Bermuda sales.
  • Vision Airlines has announced new service to Northwest Florida Regional Airport, with easy access to Destin, Ft. Walton Beach, and Okaloosa Island. Service starts March 25, and introductory fares are available from $49 each-way. At publication time, Vision hadn’t announced end dates for the promotion, but noted that the lowest fares are subject to availability. In other words: First come, first served.

Be Flexible

In order to get the best fare and availability to your preferred beach destination, it helps to familiarize yourself with your preferred low-cost carrier’s flight schedule. Unlike service around the continental U.S., flights to and from the Caribbean may be more limited, in regard to both days of the week and available time slots. For example, when I checked sample fares on several airlines, I had difficulty finding AirTran flights from San Juan to Boston on Mondays in February and March, any Spirit flights between Chicago and Tampa in February, or JetBlue flights between Washington, D.C., and Aruba on Sundays in March. Being flexible with your travel dates is a smart strategy when choosing a low-cost carrier to the Caribbean.

Know When to Go

Like their legacy counterparts, low-cost carriers serving the Caribbean will charge more for peak travel times, such as February school vacations (e.g., Presidents’ Day weekend) and spring break (the middle weeks of March). Expect to see the highest prices to and from the Caribbean during those high-demand periods, and more palatable prices during the weeks (and weekends) when families are back at school and work.

Check out the following chart to see price differences between peak and off-peak airfares. All fares are per-person, including all taxes and fees. Departures are on Friday and returns the following Monday of each respective weekend tested.

Route/Airline Presidents’ Day Weekend Fare First Weekend in March Fare Off-Peak/Non-Holiday Savings
Boston to San Juan on Spirit $484 $184 61 percent
New York City to Nassau on AirTran $858 $456 47 percent
Chicago to Tampa on Southwest $406 $267 34 percent
Philadelphia to Cancun on AirTran $690 $431 38 percent
Washington, D.C. to Aruba on JetBlue $1,057 $927 12 percent

As the chart shows, avoiding the highest-demand travel times can reward you with big savings—in one case, more than 60 percent off peak travel fares. If you’re not locked in to a particular set of travel dates, use a flexible-date search to find the best prices to your chosen sunny locale.

Don’t Forget About Fees

Unfortunately, even low-cost carriers aren’t immune from fees, so be sure to consider extra charges when comparing prices. Southwest still offers your first two checked bags free, and JetBlue allows one free checked bag, for all destinations in their route networks, but with most other carriers you can expect additional charges for baggage, meals, entertainment, and the like. If you haven’t already, check out SmarterTravel’s Airline Fees: The Ultimate Guide (Latin American and Caribbean Edition). Whenever new fees are announced, we’ll update the guide, so you’ll always be able to determine the true final cost of your ticket.

Editor’s Note: On January 28, JetBlue announced new fees for Caribbean service. Plan on taking these new fuel surcharges into account when determining the final cost of your ticket.

Your Turn

Which airline is your favorite low-cost carrier to the Caribbean? What new routes would you like to see? Share your thoughts by submitting a comment below!