Call first. The new airline fees for bags, meals, pillows, blankets, and rebooking flights have gotten so bad, jokes travel expert Peter Greenberg, that we could soon end up “paying to use the toilet on the airplane.” Greenberg, author of Don’t Go There! (it’s a guide to all the places you don’t want to visit), has a surprising tip: Talk to a human being at the airline. A website, whether an airline’s or a discounter’s, doesn’t always have all the cheapest flights. Call the airline’s 800 number for flight information, then compare that with what you find on the Internet. Book the best deal.
Stay up late on Tuesday. And book your flight online in the early-morning hours of Wednesday. That’s when all the deals come flooding into the airfare sites. The travel search engine kayak.com scours more than 140 sites to find the cheapest fares, even if it means you’ll fly different airlines coming and going. The site flags red-eye flights and those that are frequently late, and it often links you directly to airlines’ websites, so you avoid booking fees. In our checks, Kayak consistently found better deals than Orbitz and Travelocity.
Try alternatives. Fly into Milwaukee instead of Chicago, Long Beach instead of Los Angeles. For Thanksgiving, the most traveled holiday, don’t fly out on Wednesday. The price will likely be exorbitant and the wait at the airport ridiculously long. Take the very first flight on Thanksgiving morning instead. “Nobody is flying that day,” says Greenberg. Go home on Friday afternoon and you’ll take advantage of two of the least traveled (and less expensive) days of the year.
Book later-or not?. Airfares go up and sometimes down. Check out farecast.live.com to help you decide whether to book immediately or to wait a few days for the best rate. How do they know? The site’s predictive technology takes past trends into account.
Keep your options open. If you’re not sure where you want to go, try booking your trip backward, says Samantha Brown, host of the Travel Channel’s Passport to Great Weekends, who recommends airfarewatchdog.com. “I put in my nearest airports, and every Thursday I get an update on cheap flights to destinations around the world. Say I want to go to Florida. Miami is $200, but Orlando is $500. There are plenty of things to do in Miami.”
Drive a good bargain. Unless you’ve got a family of six, always rent the cheapest economy car. “That’s the one they run out of first; then you’re upgraded and pay the same price,” says Greenberg. Another money-saving option: Rent on a Saturday morning. People book cars for the weekend and don’t show up.
By train. Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass is good for 15 days of virtually unlimited travel for $499 (peak season) and $389 (off-peak season). For kids, it’s $250 (peak) and $195 (off-peak). “You can go across the country and back in that time,” says Greenberg. Sleeping on the train also means you’re not paying for a hotel. Go to amtrak.com and click on Hot Deals. Seats are limited, so reserve in advance each train you plan to take.
By bus. For just $1, you can catch a ride on Megabus (megabus.com), BoltBus (boltbus.com), or NeOn (neonbus.com). Megabus operates in 17 Midwestern and 8 East Coast cities. BoltBus goes to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. NeOn rides between New York and Toronto. The buses are new and roomy and tend to run direct. Bolt has free Wi-Fi, plus plug-ins for your laptop, DVD player, and iPod. The catch? There may be only one or two $1 seats for the day and time you want. Book as far in advance as you can.
Hotels. The best site for reserving hotel rooms, says Brown, is hotels.com, where you can often find a 10 to 20 percent discount. But before booking online, call the hotel directly-not the 800 reservation number-and ask if they can beat it.
House swapping. To avoid the cost of a hotel, try a home-swapping service. At digsville.com, you review listings in more than 55 countries to find a home you like for the dates you need, then send a message to the owners and see if they would like to swap with you. Who knows? You may find a family in Paris who would like to stay in your Virginia farmhouse. It’s free to search and contact homeowners, but you won’t be able to list your home or receive offers from other members until you pay the $44.95 annual fee. Homeexchange.com has more extensive listings, for a $99.95 membership fee.
Your Sunday paper isn’t the only place to find coupons. Thecouponclippers.com features about 1,600 coupons at any time, says founder Rachael Woodard. The only drawback? You can’t print coupons from this site. You order them for a small handling fee — 5 to 50 cents per coupon-and they arrive in the mail (look on the site Saturday mornings for the best selection).
Why on earth would you pay for coupons? Because you save big. We created an order that included Betty Crocker Warm Delights desserts, StarKist tuna pouches, Wisk laundry detergent, Ziploc bags, Pillsbury Crescent dinner rolls, and other favorites. Our total outlay to the Coupon Clippers came to $6.64, including the cost of coupons, postage, and a 50-cent administration fee. The savings came to $61.75 when we redeemed the coupons at face value. Some stores will double coupons, creating a savings of $123.50.
One site fan, Jaimie McConnell, a saleswoman from Charlotte, North Carolina, says she saves $15 per grocery trip with the Coupon Clippers. If you coordinate your coupons with store sales, you might even get a product free. There are minimum orders for many of the coupons; you may need only one, but you’ll have to buy five.
Check out mygrocerydeals.com before leaving home to find out what’s on sale in local grocery stores. Key in your zip code and select your favorite stores, everything from bare-bones Aldi to gourmet go-to Whole Foods Market.
You can view deals by store or by item.
At Harris Teeter, wild-caught tuna steaks were going for $5.99 a pound. That’s a $5-per-pound savings. And a 17.5-ounce box of Oatmeal Crisp cereal was a two-for-$5 special, a savings of $2.48.
Keep it fresh
Peter Napolitano, otherwise known as Produce Pete, of WNBC’s Weekend Today in New York, has tips.
Buy locally. It can cost 75 cents just to ship a cantaloupe from California to the East Coast, and $2 to cover the freight for a watermelon traveling from Florida to your grocery store. “You’ll get a tastier product by buying locally because it will ripen on the vine longer, and you’ll get more for your money because you’re cutting out the transportation costs,” says Napolitano.
Buy cheap. We’re accustomed to believing the higher the price, the better the quality. But with produce, the opposite is true. “When you see a cheap price on fruits and vegetables, you can bet the quality will be far superior than when the price is higher,” he says. When fruit is fresh and in season and the volume is up, the price goes down because grocers have to move perishables quickly.
At restaurant.com, browse discounts in your area. Pay $10 for a $25 certificate, select a restaurant, then print out the dining certificate and present it to your waiter. (Be sure to read the fine print for restrictions first.)