Travel Smarter 2012: New tips for the budget traveler

For a while there, it looked like 2012 would be a bad year for budget travelers. With hotel occupancy rates creeping upward, flight capacity remaining tight and recession-wary vacationers opening their wallets again, it seemed inevitable that prices would rise accordingly.

But something funny happened during the lean years: Travelers became more savvy about using technology to find discounts and last-minute deals. And the travel industry has found that once people become used to grabbing travel bargains, it’s hard to get them to pay full price again.

So with that in mind, here are some ways budget travelers can continue acting like it’s 2009:

Book on the go. With the resurging economy, hotels had hoped that the booking window – the length of time before a scheduled trip – would go back to the pre-recession standard of 90 days. Instead, says Ben Kazez, Senior Director of Mobile Apps & Emerging Platforms at Expedia, people – particularly younger travelers – have become used to waiting until the last minute to find a hotel room. “They treat it like going out to a restaurant,” he said when the company launched its hotel app in December; 60 % of people use it for same-day bookings.The Expedia app is indeed a good place to find last-minute unsold hotel inventory while you’re on the road, as is Priceline (If buying from opaque sites scare you, narrow down your risk by using BetterBidding). HotelTonight, which specifically looks at rooms available after noon on the day you want to check in, also receives stellar reviews.

A caveat: Last-minute bookings work best if you’re traveling during a destination’s quieter time of year. In other words, don’t arrive in Florida during Spring Break without a hotel room and expect to get a great deal.

Follow the (bad) news. Greece, Portugal, Egypt. If a country’s economic woes show up on the news, chances are that their tourist industry will take a dip soon after. Which means lower prices for bargain hunters, if you’re OK with assuming a little risk.

If business news isn’t your thing, read the real estate section. Cities that have already gone through hotel construction booms will have likely drop rates to keep occupancy up. According to Bloomberg, rates in Berlin – already inexpensive by European standards – are already lower because supply has outpaced demand. The hotelier’s loss is your gain.

Wait until the crowds leave. Likewise, keep your eye on cities and countries with major festivals and sporting events – and go after the hoopla ends. Your historical precedent is South Africa, where new hotels that came online for the 2010 World Cup famously slashed their rates more than 20 percent afterward because hotel demand crashed.

In 2012, that means you should look into London after the Diamond Jubilee and Summer Olympics have ended, or a trip to Mayan Central America after the Long Count Calendar ends Dec. 21 (if we’re all still standing, that is).

Consider alternatives to flying. Summer airfares are already going up, based on that familiar complaint, rising fuel costs. So make the fewer flights that you do take count, and fly into hubs where you can easily take buses or trains to other destinations.

On the East Coast, that might mean flying into the cheapest airport you can find and grabbing a Bolt Bus to a pricier destination (check out BusJunction to compare route prices and read Yelp reviews). In Europe, avoid some of the supposed low-cost airlines such as RyanAir (with all those fees, it’s never a bargain) and see if it’s cheaper to take a train.

Try peer to peer lodging. Peer to peer lodging services such as AirBnB took a PR hit in 2011, after a San Francisco woman published horrifying details about a renter who trashed her apartment. But growth continues, particularly in Europe, where the company has both benefited travelers and those renting out rooms for extra cash. Both 9flats and Couchsurfing have received funding injections, although the latter has received flack from its community over how the growth is changing the free service.

Bottom line: If you’re an open-minded traveler who doesn’t mind interacting with strangers, these services can provide interesting and cheaper places to stay than many hotels (although AirBnB has its share of pricey properties). Who knows, you might even make a friend.

Become cruise savvy. In the wake of the Costa tragedy in January, cruise bookings dropped significantly, according to figures released by Carnival Corp., which owns numerous lines. The market will likely recover, as cruise fanatics are just that, fanatical. But if lower prices do tempt you to book, remember that you’ll still need to budget for drinks and other extras on board. Handle your own air for greater flexibility, and remember that the official shore excursions offered by the lines are never a bargain.

Sign up for coupon sites and flash sales. The offers that come in through coupon sites such as Groupon and LivingSocial or flash sale providers such as Jetsetter can provide immense savings – as long as you actually want what they’re selling. Read the fine print so you’re aware of blackout dates and other restrictions.

Reconsider the car. Car rental rates often seem like the most mysterious travel expense, with rates that fluctuate within the airport. If you can, skip a rental all together and take advantage of car and ride sharing services. While ZipCar is probably the most established car share program, Hertz On Demand and Car2Go have expanded into more cities. For those who are really trusting, RelayRides bills itself as the AirBnB of carsharing.

Don’t drive? The Avego ridesharing app connects people needing rides with drivers who have empty seats. Zimride has a similar concept with a more social layout. Or simply bike it with Spotcycle. You’ll not only save money, you’ll feel socially conscious and fit – a budget traveler trifecta that will make you feel even more entitled to enjoy that beer at the end of the day.

Travel writer Chris Gray Faust writes about value luxury vacations at her award-winning site, Chris Around The World.

[flickr image via GaryKnight]