Squeezing Your Summer Travel Dollar

Most of us have had the wonderfully chilling experience of committing to a summer vacation trip before checking the prices, waiting too late to get the best deals, then feeling compelled to pay a much larger price to get there and back.

Sometimes, in fact, there's not a lot of coin left over to enjoy the destination, which is why late May is the right time to go over some very effective ways of staying in charge of your travel budget.

Do I really want (or need) to go there? If the roundtrip fares to your destination now require a second mortgage to afford, you need to ask yourself whether perhaps, there isn't a better place to go? Whether your initial target was Cabo, Honolulu, or London, there could be another cool place you've been wanting to visit that might be reachable by road or rail, or a far cheaper plane ticket. If Europe is looking grim (and hot), remember that Australia and New Zealand are in winter during our summer, and the fares are typically more reasonable.

Look for the hotel/resort after finding the flight. Start searching for your flights before you start looking for the hotel and resort bargains. Too often summer travelers who aren't otherwise committed to a particular date obligate themselves for a hotel first only to discover that flying in and out on those dates is going to cost a small fortune. Try to stay flexible, and because the most volatile element is the airfare, tackle that one first.

If the hotel or resort dates are already set in concrete, just put more time into searching for the best fares, and do not just take the first thing that looks good on Expedia or one of the other third-party Web sites.

Also, try to start and end your trip in the middle of the week, because most everyone else is looking for weekend travel.

Which makes more financial sense: flying, driving or rail? If you live along the eastern corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., and your destination is in the same vicinity, you already know to check out the Amtrak fares and schedules. The same is true for travel from those areas to and from Florida, because in most cases we're not talking about using half your vacation time en route.

In some instances, flying one way and going by rail the other makes economic sense. For shorter distances up to 300 miles (especially if your destination isn't near a large airport), driving may still be your best method. In any event, if time isn't a major factor, rail travel even clear across the United States is great fun and a very civilized way to go. The price for roomettes and rooms can get steep, however, especially if you're traveling alone, and I do not recommend Amtrak for a trip more than 20 hours without a room.

The drawbacks on ground travel of course begin with the extra time it takes to drive or go by train, but in the case of driving, you need to realistically factor in the insane cost of gasoline this summer as well as all the tolls and extras inherent to road travel. For instance, a 20 miles per gallon 300-mile round trip that cost less than $60 last year for gas alone will cost you around $100 this summer. The difference in a 3,000-mile round trip then becomes $400! Plus, remember that you're at least one order of magnitude safer in the air than on the road.

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