25 Ways to Save on Summer Travel

Summer might be the perfect time for a vacation, but peak-season travel doesn’t come cheap. The warm weather, coupled with the fact that kids are out of school, can bring filled-up flights, less availability at hotels and resorts, and surging costs that put summer travel out of reach for some people.

Still, there are plenty of ways to save on summer travel if you’re willing to be flexible and think outside of the box. As the warm weather heads our way and you prepare to book your summer travel plans, here are some tips to consider.

1. Visit destinations within driving distance.

According to CheapAir.com, the average cost for domestic round-trip airfare is currently around $377 per person. That’s almost $1,200 for a family of four, and it doesn’t even include costs like baggage fees, airport food, or a taxi ride to your resort after you leave the airport.

These surging costs — not to mention the lowest gasoline prices in a decade — are partly why it almost always makes sense to drive to your destination if you can. Not only will you save on airfare, but you’ll avoid having to rent a car or pay for taxis or public transportation during your trip.

You will need a reliable and safe car that gets good gas mileage for this strategy to make sense, but the savings can be well worth it if you already own a vehicle that fits the bill. And even if you don’t, renting an economy car at $30-$50 a day can be a cost-saver versus flying.

2. Share a rental with friends or family.

If you want to save a bundle while you travel, it can pay to rent a vacation condo with family or friends. Not only can you enjoy the extra eyes on your kids and a few minutes of free babysitting while you shower, but you can glean huge savings by renting a larger place and splitting up the cost.

Websites like VRBO, HomeAway, FlipKey, and Airbnb feature vacation homes and rental condos that sleep a lot more people than a hotel room, and at a much lower price point per person. You’ll also save money every time you make a meal in your vacation rental’s kitchen instead of eating out at a restaurant. By sharing your accommodations and perhaps compromising with your loved ones just a bit, you can save big!

3. Stay with family or friends.

If you have friends or family that live near a major tourist area, you could always build a vacation around an existing trip to visit your loved ones. By staying with well-located friends or family members, you can save on lodging while staying fairly close to the attractions you want to see.

Of course, this strategy depends on your loved ones actually wanting house guests in the first place!

4. Redeem airline miles or hotel points.

If you have excellent credit and live a debt-free lifestyle, you can always decide to give credit card rewards a whirl. Depending on which travel credit card you sign up for, you can earn points for free airfare, free hotel stays, train tickets, and more.

Once you decide what type of travel rewards you really want, you can find the right card for your needs and be on your way to scoring free or discounted travel in no time. Just make sure you explore all of your options before you sign up.

5. Find a deal on Groupon Getaways.

Sites like Groupon and Living Social offer more than coupons on everyday items; they also offer travel deals and bundles that can be a whole lot cheaper than buying the same trip elsewhere. While some of these packages include airfare, others just include lodging at an all-inclusive resort, vacation condo complex, or hotel.

To find the best deals, look for last-minute options, bundled packages, and weekly or daily specials. Meanwhile, you should always price out the individual components of each trip to make sure you really are getting a stellar deal. Some packaged “deals” can actually be more expensive when you book through one of these sites, so do your homework before you click “buy.”

6. Plan your trip around a deal.

A lot of people save money on travel by planning their trip backwards; instead of choosing a destination and finding the cheapest way to get there, they find a good price on any type of trip and plan their entire vacation around that.

This is a good strategy with deals you find on Expedia, Travelocity, or TravelZoo. Since some destinations are bound to be cheaper from year to year, it can pay to be flexible on which destination you visit and what type of hotel or property you end up in.

7. Go for an all-inclusive resort.

If you’re able to get a good deal at an all-inclusive resort, you could save more money than you might realize. True to their name, most all-inclusive resorts include almost everything for one pretty low price – that generally includes your hotel stay, food and drink (including alcohol), and even entertainment and activities.

If you’re a family on a budget, all-inclusive resorts can also make your trip a lot easier to budget for.

8. Try a cruise.

In a recent post, we compared the cost of cruising to the expense of spending a week at an all-inclusive resort. All things considered, the costs were similar since both types of vacation include the majority of your expenses – food, beverages, and entertainment, plus lodging.

If you can drive to a cruise port instead of flying, however, you could save even more. At the end of the day, which type of trip is best for your family depends on your vacation goals. Do you want to relax at a single resort all week, or cruise the ocean and visit a few different destinations? The choice is up to you.

9. Purchase a vacation bundle.

Sites like Expedia and Travelocity are known for offering discounts if you “bundle” several components of your tip and buy them together. This could mean purchasing airfare at the same time as your hotel stay, or bundling your hotel, airfare, and rental car into one single package. According to Expedia, people save an average of $570 by booking their flight and hotel at the same time.

10. Explore the great outdoors.

If spending your vacation at a mega-resort or on board a cruise ship makes you queasy, you could always immerse yourself in nature instead. For your family, that could mean camping out at a state or national park, hitting the road with a camper for an extended family getaway, or popping a tent somewhere in the woods. Go fishing, hike a canyon or mountain summit, or just sit back and enjoy the quiet wonder of the outdoors.

Or, you can try a camping trip that’s a little more upscale but still cheaper than many resorts. “Glamping,” for example, is a cheeky term coined to describe a more glamorous form of camping: in a cabin with electricity, running water, and temperature control.

11. Fly on Tuesdays.

The cheapest day to fly last summer was Tuesday, according to an analysis by CheapAir.com, though Wednesday came in at a close second place. Since weekday flights are often less expensive, it pays to shop around and be as flexible as possible with your specific travel dates. Most importantly, you can usually save the most by avoiding Saturday to Saturday or Sunday to Sunday itineraries.

12. Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.

If you’re planning a trip overseas, you can save 1% to 3% on your credit card purchases by using a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Best of all, many such cards don’t levy an annual fee, either.

13. Go where kids stay free.

At certain resorts, like Holiday Inn properties, kids stay and eat free. At their all-inclusive resorts, this means up to two kids under 12 can stay in the room and eat for free for the duration of your trip. Rules vary for their non-all-inclusive resorts, but most Holiday Inn properties offer free kid’s meals with the purchase of an adult lunch or dinner entrée.

14. Consider a last-minute trip.

Where planning ahead is a great way to save, so is taking a last-minute trip! Resorts, hotels, and even flights can go on sale at the last minute, but you need to be ready to book when you find a deal.

Sites like Groupon Getaways and Living Social Escapes are good resources to find last-minute vacation packages, while the app Hotel Tonight offers discounts on last-minute hotel bookings.

15. Book a rental with a full kitchen.

Staying in a hotel without a refrigerator and microwave means you’ll be on your own to find affordable meals every few hours. Booking a vacation condo, on the other hand, means you can buy fresh food and snacks to keep on hand. And if you feel like cooking on vacation, you can even cook the bulk of your meals and save a load of money by avoiding pricey restaurants nearby.

16. Take a mini-vacation.

If you can’t afford a week-long affair, try a mini-vacation a few hours from home. A long weekend (or early week trip) can still help you unwind and do wonders for your mental health, and you’ll save money by paying for just a few nights away from home. Of course, a mini-vacation will always be cheaper if you can drive instead of flying!

17. Pick a destination with free entertainment.

Vacations will almost always be cheaper if the destination you choose has some entertainment value on its own. With a typical beach vacation, for example, kids can usually stay fairly busy playing in the sand and surf. If you choose to vacation in the mountains, you can keep the family busy by hiking and exploring the outdoors. And in vibrant cultural cities like New York or New Orleans, you’ll often encounter music in the streets and many museums or historic sites that are free of charge.

Some vacation packages also include entertainment as part of the deal. Cruises and all-inclusive resorts are a good example; once you pay your fare or room rate, most activities and entertainment options are included.

family on beach vacation
A beach provides plenty of free fun for kids – and grownups, too. Photo: Rob Briscoe

18. Hit up the visitor’s center.

Most destinations have a visitor’s center, which can be a great source of deals that can make your vacation cheaper. Beyond the brochures that will introduce you to the area’s attractions, you can also find buy-one-get-one-free coupons for dinner or free appetizers, and discounts on local attractions.

19. Be flexible with your plans.

Remember how flying on weekdays can save you money? That kind of flexibility can help you save on other components of your trip as well. If you’re able to take one of those unsavory flights before sunrise or late at night, stay in less-than-perfect accommodations for a portion of your trip, or visit a destination you hadn’t considered before, you can piece together a much cheaper getaway.

20. Subscribe to cheap travel alerts.

Websites like The Flight Deal, Airfare Watchdog, and Secret Flying use complex algorithms to find mistake fares and low-cost flights to destinations all over the globe. By subscribing to these sites, you can hear about these deals and price drops first – and get them before they’re gone.

21. Avoid summer holidays.

Summer travel is expensive as it is, but prices surge around summer holidays like Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. To save as much as you can, avoid these holidays – and the weekends before or after – like the plague.

22. Rethink your ground transportation plans.

Instead of blindly renting a full-size car at your destination airport, consider what your transportation needs will really be. In a big city, for example, when you factor in both the cost of a rental car and the price of parking, it can pay off to become acquainted with the bus or subway system and simply take a taxi to and from the airport.

In a touristy beach area, on the other hand, you might be much better off with a low-cost rental car that you book for an entire week. And in destinations where you’ll mostly be walking around on-site, renting bikes or using a ride-sharing app like Uber for the occasional lift will provide the cheapest and easiest way to get around. It all depends on where you’re going and what you plan to do there, so do your research ahead of time.

23. Avoid touristy restaurants.

You can usually save quite a bit of money on dining by avoiding the restaurants on the main drag in any tourist area. Most of the time, you’ll want to “eat where the locals do” since prices are generally better and the food can be more authentic.

To find out where the locals dine, check online forums and review sites such as Yelp or Foursquare (and note the hometown of each reviewer) or ask some locals — such as your taxi driver or hotel’s concierge — and see where they like to go.

24. Stay off the beaten path.

Just like eating off the beaten path can save you money, choosing lodging options just off the main drag can help you save as well. Right off the Las Vegas strip, for example, you can find three- or four-star properties that are a fraction of the price of, say, the Mirage. And in beach locales, you can usually save 30% or more by staying just a few steps from the water instead of right on the beach.

25. Consider alternate airports.

If you live within reach of a couple of different airports, it can pay to explore your flight options from all of them before you book a trip. If you live in Indianapolis but can drive to Chicago, for example, exploring fares at both airports will open up a lot more options at different price points.

Most importantly, big international airports like Chicago O’Hare, LAX, Newark, and JFK usually have the best availability when it comes to nonstop flights. And sometimes, that extra availability translates into lower costs. Either way, it always makes sense to explore all of your options.

The Bottom Line

It won’t be long until the summer travel season is here. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to save money if you’re willing to consider some alternative options for your plans, scour the Internet for deals, and stay flexible with dates and times. With some planning, and an open mind, you could wind up paying a whole lot less for your summer vacation this year.

What is your favorite way to save on summer travel? What summer travel plans do you already have booked for this year?

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Holly Johnson

Contributing Writer

Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.