Take a vacation without spending a fortune with these helpful resources and insider tips.
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Woman in overhead compartment
Credit: Greg Clarke

If you’re lucky, you’re reading this story in a tropical locale, while smoothing on sunscreen and mulling over another mai tai. More likely, you’re reading it in your living room while also checking for the latest dismal financial news and wondering if a medium latte is worth the extra 79 cents. But everyone deserves a getaway now and then―and it doesn’t have to break the bank. The trick is to know how to make the most of your vacation dollars. Fortunately, cheap flights abound, not all exotic destinations have multiple dollar signs next to their names, and options exist for families that don’t require booking a block of hotel rooms. Here, travel-industry experts offer savvy solutions to the most common financial obstacles you might face while planning a trip. Which means you can skip town without losing your shirt―unless you have your swimsuit on underneath.

If Flying Seems Too Pricey...

  • 1. Check fares regularly. Why? They are finally going down. "In 2008 airlines cut capacity so they were able to survive without discounting fares too much," says Brett Snyder, an airline-industry veteran and the founder of the blog crankyflier.com. "But because of the current economy, we’ll see some price cutting." Bookmark these sites that compare prices and alert you via e-mail if a selected fare has changed: farecompare.com, farecast.com, yapta.com, travelocity.com.
  • 2. Explore non-U.S. airlines for international travel. Thanks to recent changes in the Open Skies agreement between the United States and Europe, several overseas carries, like Aer Lingus, can now fly between a number of U.S. and European cities. (Find out who flies where at whichbudget.com or vayama.com.) Within Europe, you can save money by flying on a regional discount airline, like easyJet (easyjet.com), Jet4you (jet4you.com), or myair (myair.com), instead of on a major carrier; one-way flights can run as low as 22 euros (incredibly, that’s only about $28).
  • 3. Drive! Gas prices are down, so take advantage. Here are some road-trip planning ideas.
  • Visit nps.gov to find a national park within driving distance. Deborah Trevino, a travel adviser at Hobson Travel, a trip-planning agency in Naperville, Illinois, recommends Utah’s Capitol Reef, Arizona’s Lake Powell, and Michigan’s Isle Royale. For more destinations, visit discoveramerica.com, the website of the U.S. travel and tourism industry.
  • Start with a theme. Lonely Planet’s new TRIPS guide books (Lonely Planet Publications, $20 each, amazon.com) list itineraries in six different regions organized by interest, such as history or food.
  • Check your tank. With tripadvisor.com’s "Tank of Gas" tool, you type in your hometown and indicate how much gas you want to use (full, half, or quarter tank). The tool lists destinations within reach.

If Multiple Hotel Rooms Are Draining Your Wallet...

1. Rent a house or a condo. For families or groups, renting can be a lot cheaper than paying for the same number of beds in a hotel. A recent search in San Francisco, for example, turned up several two-bedroom apartments (that sleep at least four) for around $250 a night; most hotels were between $150 and $250 a night for a single room. Renting is a particularly good option in smaller destinations where hotels are scarce, or in major cities where hotels are ultra-expensive. Visit homeaway.com, resortquest.com, and interhomeusa.com for listings in the United States and abroad.

Before renting, always request to speak directly with the property owner and ask specific questions. ("What exactly does ‘beach access’ mean?") If you’re renting in Europe and willing to pay 20 to 30 percent more, try using a villa company, like LaCURE Villas (lacurevillas.com) or Villas of Distinction (villasofdistinction.com). They will have inspected each listed home and can even act as a concierge recommending specific properties and planning activities.

2. Opt for a small hotel. "Americans focus way too much on chain hotels that cater to business travelers and corporate budgets," says Tim Leffel, author of Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune (Travelers’ Tales, $13, amazon.com). In contrast, smaller, independent hotels―common in Europe and Latin America―are cheaper and often contain apartment-style suites with compact kitchens and living rooms.

3. Swap houses. If you live in a popular location and you’re willing to let a stranger sleep in your bed, join a home-exchange site. For an annual fee of about $100, you can list your home and gain access to a database of other members’ homes worldwide to arrange a swap. Check out homeexchange.com and homelink.org. Always talk extensively with your swapper and, if possible, ask for references. It’s also a good idea to invest in a safe and check your home insurance to see how guests are covered.

If You Can Travel Only at Peak Times...

1. Choose a bargain destination. Here are some year-round budget options: Mexico, Canada, Slovenia, Hungary, Peru, Puerto Rico, Panama, and the Dominican Republic. Also, check foreign exchange rates. Countries with faltering currencies are a steal at any time of the year.

2. Pick an off-season location. During the summer months, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and even South America (where it will be winter) are still pleasant―and less crowded.

3. Research “secondary” destinations. Pick a popular resort or city on a map, then move your finger a bit. Nearby towns may offer the same experience for less. For example, in Mexico, Sayulita is a secondary destination to Puerto Vallarta.

If You Tend to Spend Too Much, Then Suffer Later...

  • 1. Go prepared. Look up the cost of museums and public transport in case you can buy daily, weekly, or combination passes ahead of time for a discounted price. Carry a calculator to track your spending in dollars. And to get a good sense of how much to budget, check out what the U.S. State Department allows government officials to spend on daily meals and incidentals in various countries (go to aoprals.state.gov).
  • 2. Book fixed-cost trips. All-inclusive programs that lump meals and activities with the room price keep costs down. Consider one of these: