Travelers hear about it and see it every day: gas prices are up, the dollar is weak and travel is getting more expensive by the minute. As the cost of jet fuel rises and air carriers charge extra for everything from baggage to aisle seats, travelers on a budget may wonder if they can even afford a vacation.
Here are some of our favorite travel tips for keeping you on the road this summer while still keeping your budget intact.
Be a Local Tourist
Why is it that we never consider being a tourist in our own backyard? Why wait for company to visit to explore our own cities?
These days, the mighty dollar isn't so mighty, causing most Americans to look for vacation inspiration closer to home. Now there's even more reason to visit your local landmarks this summer. Consider a visit to a nearby historic site, or a local amusement park.
You should also check your local newspapers and regional websites for cool weekend fairs and events. Summer is the best time for state and county fairs. Funnel cake and Ferris wheels, anyone?
Several US cities are considered jump-off cities, or two destinations in one. For example, a trip to Las Vegas can also become a trip to the Grand Canyon. Travelers should consider a visit during the summer, Sin City's off-season, for low rates on flights, hotel rooms, shows and rental cars.
The Canyon is only about 250 miles away from Vegas, and it will take about four and a half hours to drive there. Once there you can explore one of the most amazing wonders of the world.
Need more inspiration? A trip to San Francisco can easily become a sojourn into California's wine country, or a trek to our nation's monuments in Washington, DC, may incorporate a trip to Baltimore's famed Inner Harbor.
Use Regional Airports
Most low-cost airlines, like Spirit Airlines, service smaller regional airports near large cities. Sure, these airports may be a bit out of the way, but the minor inconvenience can put mucho moolah back into your pocket.
For instance, Spirit doesn't service Philadelphia International Airport, but it does fly out of New Jersey's Atlantic City International Airport, which is just an hour away.
Apartment and Home Rentals Instead of Hotels
Rentals are not only more economical than hotels for a family trip, they also give travelers the chance to experience a destination as a local.
The easiest way to find a rental is online. Check out craigslist.com, and look under the vacation rentals tab. Choose your destination city, and browse through scores of listings.
Consider this: December is high season in New York City as the city swells with tourists for the holidays. Weekend rates for even a tiny hotel room will go for $600 per night. That doesn't even include food, souvenirs or other expenses, like the hidden taxes and fees found on most hotel room bills.
But, for about $350 per night you can find a one- or two-bedroom apartment in almost any area of the city. One-bedroom apartments are usually fine for a small family. Be sure to look at the pictures in the online listing, and find one that will work for you.
Before your trip, go online and look for local grocery stores in the area you are renting to stock the kitchen with some basics like coffee, milk, drinks, cereals, etc.
Bring a personal cell phone or a pre-paid calling card to the rental. While most owners will tell you that you can use their phone, it's better to bring your own.
Today's Budget Hotels: New and Improved
The new lines of budget hotels have gone "boutique" on us and have really great amenities that travelers will love. At chains like Hilton Homewood Suites or Hampton Inns, suites have kitchenettes, sitting rooms, full separate bedrooms and oversized baths. Many also offer free daily breakfast, free Wi-Fi, free happy hours and free dinners daily.
You know what else is great about these properties? The bed. Smaller properties are now featuring branded beds that are decked out with high-thread-count sheets and snuggly pillows and blankets.
Avoid Hidden Hotel Costs
Did you ever notice all of the extra charges that are listed on a hotel bill that were never outlined in the room rate? Here are some charges that we found on a bill from a popular New York hotel:
Room Charge (Room rate per night)
Room Sales Tax (OK, I get that)
Occupancy/Tourism Tax (You have to pay to be a tourist?)
NYS Javits Center Tax (No idea)
City/Local Tax (I thought I just paid room tax)
Internet Service (Ugh)
USA Today Delivery (Huh?)
With all of those extra fees, a $300 room jumped up to over $385.
How can you avoid some of them? Ask for all of the fees associated with the room to be disclosed at check-in. Decline newspaper delivery, and make sure you understand all of the fees associated with picking up the phone in your room. The best way to deal with a hotel phone is not to use it at all. Bring your own cell phone or a pre-paid calling card (and call from outside your hotel room).
Did Someone Say Road Trip?
Despite gas costs, a lot of travelers will still take road trips this year and may consider a rental in lieu of racking up the mileage on their own leased vehicles.
However, is it worth it? You may be surprised.
Below is a cost analysis, where we compared the price of driving from Germantown, MD, to Lake George, NY, (a trip of about 482 miles) in a leased 2005 Honda Pilot versus a mid-sized rental car.
We checked the prices online for a two-week rental.
Mid-sized vehicle (Chevy Malibu)
2 weeks at $245.99 per week: $491.98
Licensing cost recovery: $9.36
Average gas and tolls: $225
Grand Total: $806.63
My Leased Vehicle:
Using a standard lease agreement, the extra miles (miles over a 12,000-per-year allowance) were rated at $0.14 per mile.
482 miles x .14 x 2 (because we have to drive back): $134.96
14 days x approx. 30 miles per day x .14 = 58.80 (daily drives)
Gas and tolls: $250 (larger tank in SUV)
Grand Total: $443.76
You can then take the $443 and put it into an interest-bearing savings account to hold until the end of your lease agreement and use that money to pay off any extra miles above the 12K-per-year limit.
Hourly Car Rentals/Car Shares
Only need a car for a few hours in a destination? You may want to look into a car share like Zipcar. Zipcars can be found in cities across the U.S. and are a great option when you need a car for only a few hours. There is a $25 one-time application fee to join and an annual fee of $50, but then you get dirt-cheap hourly rates. In Chicago a Zipcar is $9 per hour; the same car in New York City is only $10 per hour.
Drive With an E-ZPass
An E-ZPass or one of the other toll passes out there (IZoom, Fast Lanes) will function across 12 Eastern and Midwestern states that use the same transponders. You can temporarily add up to four cars to your E-ZPass account online or over the phone, making it easy to register your rental car.
Drive Smart: Where to Fill Your Tank
Create a road trip itinerary that not only maps out the best places to visit along the way, but also features the cheapest gas stations and rest stops to fill up your tank. Use the American Automobile Association's online TripTik tool to map out your trip, then go to gasbuddy.com to find the cheapest gas at every stop along the way.
Cruise to Europe on American Cruise Lines
Just because the mighty dollar is weak against the euro, doesn't mean that you have to delay your European vacation. You may just need to travel there by sea instead of by air. Cruising is far cheaper than paying air fare plus nightly hotel rates, and you will pay just one up-front price in US dollars to cover your room, meals and transfer costs if you book with a US-based cruise line.
Cruise Deals Online
Looking for a great cruise deal online? Check out lastminute.com for cheap deals. Also take a peek at smallshipcruises.com; this site is great for off-the-beaten-path cruise packages using smaller operators.
Dining: Make Lunch Your Main Meal
When visiting another city, you'll want to explore the restaurant scene. Did you know that lunch prices are often 30% cheaper than the same entrees on a dinner menu? You are also less likely to splurge on expensive wine and alcoholic drinks. Plan to chow down by day, and opt for a budget dinner.
Vacation with Friends and Family -- Split the Costs
Now is the best time to vacation with friends and family, because it makes traveling cheaper. For example, you can rent an apartment, condo or even a house and split the costs.
Pet-Sitting Swaps Instead of Kennels
Every part of your travel experience is expensive; making sure Fido is taken care of can cost a small fortune. Here's a tip for pet lovers: swap pet-sitting services.
Kennels, on average, cost about $15 per day for boarding your pet. For a 5-day trip, the cost of board, taxes and other fees like bathing, special foods and exercise can reach more than a hundred dollars for just one pet.
To save money, make a deal with another pet-loving friend and swap pet-sitting services. You can even look on sites like sittercity.com and craigslist.com for people looking to swap services with you.
More Talk Travel Tips
Want to hit Broadway and not pay the hefty prices for tickets? Try getting your tickets online before you head to New York City. The best sites to try include theatermania.com, playbill.com and broadwaybox.com. These sites post promotional codes that can shave off nearly half the costs of tickets purchased at the box office.
Heading up to Philly on Amtrak? Did you know that your Amtrak ticket also serves as a free pass on the SEPTA trains to center city? Once you get to Suburban Station or Market East Station, look for access to other public transport like buses, subways and trolleys.
London city secret: When riding the tube, pay ��3and get yourself an Oyster Card. You can use the card and ride the tube, bus or tram for roughly 50% less.
Want to beat the crowds at the theme parks in Orlando? You can now purchase discount park tickets at select Wal-Mart stores.