I enjoy traveling and wish I could afford to do more of it. For right now, I can only dream of the places I’d like to go. When I do have the funds (read: when more debt is paid off), I plan to use these methods to score frugal travel deals without feeling like I’m being frugal. Today I’ll focus on when to travel and how to use miles. Tomorrow I’ll cover the travel deal websites.
If possible, visit your destination of choice in the off-season. This is challenging when you have kids, but it can be done. When my sister and I were young, our parents took us to Hawaii for a week during the school year. Our teachers sent along homework and many of the spots we visited were educational, too. My parents believed, and I agree, that whatever we gained from the experience would more than outweigh missing one week of first and fifth grade. Of course, if your children are struggling in school, this isn’t a good option, but it is for parents with children who are succeeding in school.
If you don’t have kids, traveling in the off-season is much easier. Most destinations have “shoulder seasons.” These are the periods on the edges of either end of the peak period. In general it means the weather will be good and most destinations will be open, but it won’t be quite as nice as during the peak season. On the other hand, the crowds will be smaller, airfares will be lower, and flights will be cheaper so you can find true frugal travel deals. I visited Italy in mid-May and it was busy, but not ridiculously so.
One caveat about visiting the Caribbean during the off-season, which is also hurricane season. During years that are expected to have heavy hurricane activity, you might want to avoid the central and upper Caribbean during the summer and early fall. The southern Caribbean tends to have less activity, so travel there should be safe. If you do book a trip during hurricane season, make sure you have trip cancellation insurance and that it covers voluntary cancellation due to acts of God.
Many people like to use miles for travel. Experts recommend using miles to travel as far as possible to get the best value. I’ve used miles for Ireland and New York. According to one expert, South America is a great destination for miles – you can often buy cheap flights and then use miles to upgrade to business or first class. As a bonus, their dollar is weaker than ours and their cost of living is lower, so the prices are cheap. The Euro is much stronger than ours, so deals are more difficult to come by in Europe.
If you plan to use miles, try to book 11 months (333 days) in advance. Most awards seats are released 333 days in advance, although some airlines release them later. Call the airline to find out when they release mileage seats and then call them or go online as close to that date as possible to reserve your tickets.
If you can’t score cheap seats, you can often use miles to pay for your hotel room or car instead. That will still save you a lot of money off the trip.
The best way to get miles is with a mileage credit card. Try to find one that offers double mile rewards for some purchases. If you’re working toward a reward, put all your purchases on that card, but make sure you can pay them off at the end of the month. If you’ve got college-age students and are paying part of the tuition, charging their tuition to a mileage card (that you then pay off promptly) can score you some serious miles. My parents treated themselves to a nice trip to celebrate my sister’s graduation.
Also be aware of when miles expire. Some programs expire miles after 18 months of non-activity. Activity means earning miles or spending miles. Often, you can use a few hundred miles to buy a magazine subscription, which will then reactivate your miles if you’re getting close to losing them.
If you plan wisely, you can get free flights and travel when it’s relaxing for you, not when you’re squeezed between tour groups and fighting to find a room. Tomorrow I’ll review methods for getting travel deals with the deal websites.