It's May. Memorial Day and the end of the school year are in sight. Suddenly, you're thinking about a summer vacation. A little advance planning — and some insider tips — can save you a lot of money. Whether you're booking airfare, a car rental or a hotel room, there are questions you should ask first.
Q: When is the best time to buy airfare?
A: There is no overarching rule, but generally the sweet spot for buying is four to six weeks before you travel. Prices are highest eight to 10 weeks and two to three weeks in advance. However, start your search earlier, if possible. Learn what fares tend to be on a route so you can jump on a deal when one appears. Timing it right can save a family hundreds of dollars. And remember, with most fares you now have 24 hours to cancel for any reason. Use that to your advantage.
Q: Is it worth paying for extras such as more legroom, access to shorter security lines and early boarding?
A: There are a number of variables to consider here, including the length of your flight — and your legs. The airline and time of day can also matter.
You can buy your way to the front of a security line. United, for examples, charges $9 for the privilege. But first consider the time you're flying. At lunchtime on a Tuesday, the airport is probably empty anyway. However, if you're leaving Orlando or Las Vegas on a Sunday, the fee could be money well spent.
Boarding early improves your chances of finding overhead space. But that's about it. If you don't have a carry-on bag, then save the money — typically $10 each way. Only on Southwest — which doesn't assign seats — is there an additional advantage: being first to pick where to sit.
Then there's legroom. JetBlue charges extra for seats in the front of the plane with more legroom. But its standard seats already have three inches more legroom than a similar seat on United. "Preferred seats" on American Airlines start at $4 and climb to $99, depending on the length of a flight. But there isn't extra space — you're just nearer the front. Use sites like SeatGuru.com and SeatExpert.com to review specific seats.
Q: Do I need rental car insurance?
A: The rental firms sell collision damage waiver (CDW) insurance for up to $25 extra a day. It offers protection from theft, vandalism or other damage. It's a major source of revenue. Decide whether you need this insurance long before you get to the counter.
Your personal insurance policy likely covers rental cars. It probably also extends liability insurance to your rental, which you also need. But confirm this well ahead of time with your insurer.
Many credit cards offer rental car insurance. Some offer primary insurance. Most only cover what your personal insurance does not. And cards have plenty of exclusions. If you are renting for more than two weeks or traveling to Ireland, Israel, Jamaica, Australia, Italy or New Zealand, you might not be covered. Exotic and luxury cars, some vans, motorcycles and SUVs aren't covered.
Your card probably doesn't cover the rental company's "loss-of-use" fee — a surcharge for the revenue lost while the vehicle is in the shop. Some personal insurance policies cover this, some don't.
Pay for the rental with the card that gives you the best protection. Debit cards typically don't offer the same coverage.
As for liability insurance, if you don't have a personal policy you should probably buy this extra coverage, which costs a few hundred dollars. Or if you rent frequently, insurance companies will sell you annual non-owner car insurance policies.
Q: Is it worth adding a GPS or toll collection device?
A: You don't need to pay up to $14 extra a day for a GPS. If you own a portable GPS, bring it with you. Or use your smartphone. Just be warned: using the smartphone's GPS tends to drain its battery.
An automatic toll collection device will cost about $5 a day. It can save you time at busy toll plazas if you're traveling during holiday weekends. But when traffic is normal, it is harder to justify the time savings.
If you decline the service and the car still has a toll device, make sure it is properly stored in the protective case. If a toll booth picks up the signal you'll be charged the toll and face a hefty penalty from the rental company.
Q: How can I save a few bucks on my stay?
A: Ask about extra charges. Parking at some hotels might be $10 a night, while big city hotels can charge in excess of $50. Internet access might cost $10 a day or more. Many big hotels also have a mandatory resort fee — that includes Internet, phone calls and use of the pool — that can run $25 a night or more.
Look for savings on food and drink. Hotel chains such as Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn Express offer free breakfasts. Others offer free bottled water in the room.
Join the frequent guest program. Omni, Fairmont and Kimpton all give program members free Wi-Fi — even those who have yet to spend a night. Fairmont gives its members free access to its health clubs. Kimpton gives a $10 credit toward snacks in its minibars.
Big chains typically run summer promotions. They offer loyalty club members rewards like a $25 gas card or a free future night after just two stays.
For smaller hotels and bed and breakfasts, pick up the phone and negotiate.
Q: Are nonrefundable rooms a good deal?
A: Sites like Priceline and Hotwire offer deep discounts in exchange for taking a chance. Vacationers only learn the name of a hotel after they pay upfront. They also aren't guaranteed a bed type or choice of smoking or non-smoking room. And some hotels give such guests less-desirable room locations, like next to the ice machine.
Many hotels now offer nonrefundable rates on their own websites. The savings might be less, but you still get to pick your room type and know where you will be staying. If your plans change and you rebook, however, you lose your money.
Keep in mind that room prices can drop after you book. That discounted, nonrefundable rate could still be higher than if you booked the room a month later.
A relatively new travel site, Tingo.com, tries to balance the best of both worlds. Guests prepay for a fully-refundable hotel room. But if the rate falls, Tingo automatically cancels the reservation and rebooks travelers at the new, lower rate, and refunds the difference. The typical rebate is $50, according to the site, which is owned by TripAdvisor.