Bargains aren't as plentiful this year — but they can be found. Here are five tips.

SUMMER TRAVEL is heating up.

Americans will take a whopping 334 million trips (defined as one person traveling 50 miles or more, one-way) this summer. That's a 3.2% increase over last year, projects the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA). According to its summer 2004 forecast: "For the first time in years, the summer travel season will start off with a bang, and we expect it to stay strong through August."

The uptick is especially impressive given the general weakness of the dollar and a 7% jump in travel prices since last December. "People are traveling more by air, but they're also traveling internationally again — and specifically to Europe," says Amy Ziff, editor at large of Travelocity. "That goes counter to what you'd think people would be doing, because we've seen over the past few years that people are such extraordinary bargain hunters. And it's a fact that the dollar isn't going as far as it used to."

Likewise, soaring gas prices aren't likely to deter road-trippers this summer, says Justin McNaull, spokesman for the American Automobile Association (AAA). "We really don't think it will have much of an impact," he says. "The reality of American vacations is that we travel in the summer and we do it by car." Indeed, experts predict a 3.4% increase in Memorial Day weekend road travel this year over last.

A hot summer travel season may have folks in the travel industry dancing on their suitcases, but it could deliver a rude awaking to those who have yet to lock in their plans. Here are some suggestions on how to keep costs in check.

1. Road Trip Tips
Gasoline prices may be the highest on record — a whopping $2.05 per gallon of regular unleaded, compared with $1.48 a year ago (according to AAA's May 26 Daily Fuel Gauge Report) — but that shouldn't stall your road trip plans.

For a minivan that gets 20 miles to the gallon, the added increase in cost for an 800-mile road trip is just a bit over $20, says AAA's McNaull. Annoying? You bet. But probably not a reason to vacation in your garage.

That said, a few simple steps could help improve your fuel efficiency — and lower your costs. The first bit of advice is fairly obvious: If you've got more than one car, it will behoove you to take the one that gets the best mileage, says McNaull. (Granted, the mere thought of stuffing the kids into the back of the hatchback vs. the SUV may render this tip moot.) Also, if your car hasn't had a tune-up in a while, be sure to get one before you hit the road. "A lack of proper maintenance can cut your fuel economy by 10%," says McNaull. You'll also get better mileage if you stash your suitcases and gear inside your car, rather than attaching it to your roof. For more tips, see our story.

What about renting a car? You'll get the best deals if you qualify for the weekend rates, says Travelocity's Ziff. That means renting after noon on Thursday and keeping the car over a Saturday night. You may also need to return it relatively early, since weekend rates often expire on Sunday around 2:00 p.m., she warns. For more tips on summer car rentals, see our story.

2. Summer Airfares: Book Now
Energy prices may be soaring, but thanks to some fight-to-the-death price wars going on in the airline industry, cheap airfares remain. "This summer, believe it or not, it may be cheaper to fly (than drive)," says Pauline Frommer, executive editor of Budget Travel magazine's Web site. "The $99 cross-country airfare has become standard, thanks to Jet Blue," she says.

Fueling the fire is the addition (or expansion) of several low-cost airlines, says Anne Banas, executive editor of travel site SmarterLiving.com. For example, Independence Air (which was formerly part of United Airlines), will start flying out of Washington's Dulles airport in mid-June. USA 3000 is expanding routes to Florida. And a scorching battle is going on in Philadelphia between US Airways, Southwest and Frontier. "There are quite a lot of options that are starting to pop up this summer," says Banas. "Definitely watch the fares and see what happens."

Hot Destinations*
Domestic International
Orlando London
Las Vegas Rome
Seattle Paris
Anaheim Vancouver
New York Shannon, Ireland
* Source: AAA Travel Agencies.

That said, when you find a flight you like, book it, says Tom Parsons, chief executive of travel-bargain Web site Bestfares.com. Just because you see a low fare advertised doesn't mean it'll be easy to get. "Flexibility is the magic word," he says. "If you're talking July and August, the cheap seats are going away." If you're struggling to find one, try traveling on Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday.

On the flip side, if you can put off your travel plans until the fall, you can hold out for the rock-bottom rates. "I'd put my feet up, have a cup of coffee and wait," says Parsons, who predicts that more sale inventory will be trotted out for fall travel throughout the summer. A good way to track fares is to sign up for the Fare Watcher service at Travelocity, which will notify you via email when ticket prices for a specific itinerary reach your desired price.

3. A European Union
European travel is becoming popular once again. But given the weakness of the dollar against the euro and the British pound, it ain't cheap.

One way around it: head to Central or Eastern Europe. These countries either have not joined the EU or have not yet started using the euro, so the exchange rate can be more favorable, says SmarterLiving's Banas. Destinations to consider include the Czech Republic, Malta and Hungary. (For more, click here.) Travelocity's Ziff recommends Croatia, although she concedes that getting there can be challenging.

Other cost-cutting maneuvers include:

  • Booking combination hotel and air packages. Budget Travel's Frommer recommends taking a look at the package deals offered by Virgin Vacations. And for travelers interested in Spain, a new travel company called Visit Spain Tours is offering fantastic deals, she says.
  • Fly intra-Europe airlines. These days, flights from one European country to another may be cheaper than rail travel. Some airlines to consider are Ryanair and EasyJet, says Frommer.
  • Push back your travel dates. If you can hold off until the fall, you'll probably pay about half the price you would in July and August, says Bestfares' Parsons. You'll also have fewer crowds and (perhaps) nicer weather.
  • Consider a cruise. You'll pay for the vast majority of your vacation in U.S. dollars, while still being able to see numerous European cities.
  • Don't panic at the last-minute. For cheap, last-minute hotel rooms, Frommer recommends the Web site Laterooms.com, which specializes in late bookings for European hotels.

4. Booking a Cheap Cruise
Prices for cruises are higher than they were last summer, but "there are deals," says cruise broker Stewart Chiron, a.k.a. "the cruise guy." He posts deals on his Web site regularly.

But if you have your heart set on Alaska, you need to book immediately, says Chiron. Alaska is one of the summer's most popular cruise destinations, and suites and balcony cabins are just about fully booked. "Families do not have the luxury of waiting," he warns.

To find deals, folks will have to be flexible, both on travel dates and departure ports. Right now, some of the best deals are out of Florida (Miami and Tampa) and Texas (Galveston), he says.

Also, folks who have their hearts set on a Disney cruise might want to delay travel until the fall, if possible, when prices could drop by 50% or more. That's no big surprise, given that kids will be heading back to school. For childless adults who relish the idea of cruising with Mickey, the savings are huge.

5. Be Contrarian
A surefire way to slash summer travel prices is to head to a winter spot. Ski resorts, for example, are wonderful summer destinations, says Ziff. Typically they offer loads of outdoor activities, like hiking, mountain biking and golf, as well as great lodging. How does a two-bedroom condo in Vail for $125 a night sound? Some other areas to consider are Beaver Creek and Aspen, also in Colorado, says Ziff.

And those looking for a relaxing beach vacation might consider the Caribbean. Clearly the hurricane belt isn't desirable, but other areas such as Aruba and Bonaire have good weather all year, says Ziff. And the prices could be half of what they'd be during the high season.