9 ways to spend less on your winter vacation

Maybe skip the hotel... and the pricey plane ticket

As the weather grows ever more blustery, we start to crave an escape, be it a weekend spent at a cozy cabin in the woods, or if you want to chill out and thaw out, days spent soaking up the sun in a tropical locale.

Unfortunately, planning a much-needed getaway in the middle of winter can prove to be pretty pricey.

"For airlines and ski and beach resorts, the weeks around Christmas and New Year's, as well as long weekends for Martin Luther King Day and Presidents' Day, offer a limited window of time when they can count on full plane seats, hotel rooms, and restaurants," explains Mara Gorman, author of The Family Traveler's Handbook. "The obligation to visit family, coupled with the fact that children are off school, can mean crowds, higher fares, and expensive hotel stays."

But all hope is not lost.

Whether you're traveling with kids, heading abroad, or setting sail on a cruise, there are countless ways to spend less on your cold-weather escape.

Take it from these three travel experts, who offer tips on how to save for a vacation — both when you're planning your trip and once you get there.

3 ways to save on family travel

1. Forgo hotels in favor of rentals

"Whether you're going to the beach or a city, you'll pay a lot less on a per-person basis — plus have more room and a kitchen at your disposal — if you investigate options like vacation rentals or Airbnb," says Tim Leffel, author of The World's Cheapest Destinations.

This strategy can preserve your sanity too — especially if you have young kids — since you won't need to eat all your meals out. Plus, adds Gorman, whipping up breakfast before you venture out for the day alone can translate into big savings.

Traveling to a region with plenty of sights in close proximity? Instead of moving around to different rentals with the kids in tow, Gorman recommends avoiding this hassle by opting for a rental in a central location, and then taking day trips to other places you want to visit.

2. Scavenge freebies for families and deals for locals

There are lots of valuable family travel perks out there — for those willing to do some homework on hotel, resort, and activity packages.

"For example, resorts may offer free skiing to kids who stay with adults for more than two nights," Gorman says.

To vet such deals — as well as other free programs often offered for children under 12 — Gorman points travelers to online resources like TripAdvisor and Minitime for candid reviews.

"Just because a hotel says its kids' club is great doesn't mean it actually is," Gorman says, adding that family blogs — like ciaobambino.com, which specializes in reviews of high-end, family-friendly properties — can also be helpful.

Another wallet-happy move that Leffel recommends: checking out deals sites for twofers and half-off deals being offered in your specific destination. "And you don't have to just use those sites at home," he adds. "You can sign up ahead of time and then use them while you travel."

Don't just stick to the big players like Groupon and LivingSocial, either. Before you take off, or soon after you arrive at your destination, peruse local sites and tourism bureau portals, too, for special promotions and information on free events in the area.

3. Opt for drivable destinations

If work obligations and general last-minuteness have left you with a narrow window for your travels — and therefore astronomical prices — you can economize by hitting the road with your family instead of heading to the airport.

"Driving is usually cheaper, even with one or two hotel stops along the way," Leffel says. On top of the hundreds-per-person cost of a plane ticket, you also have to factor in airline baggage fees at $25 to $50 a pop.

And since you've reclaimed a little flexibility by driving, consider picking a less populated destination that's not on the radar of international travelers. For example, instead of Chicago, Gorman suggests Milwaukee, which she says is home to a burgeoning local food movement and wonderful small museums.

Looking for a beach trip? Think Alabama's Gulf Shore, rather than Florida. Or, if your heart is set on a major holiday destination like New York City, consider staying in the suburbs. A town like Tarrytown, New York, offers trains right into Grand Central Station, and is quaint in its own right, with lots of family-friendly restaurants.

3 ways to save on international travel

1. Pick the right card and phone plan

Forget traveler's checks and inflated currency exchanges at the airport or your hotel. When you need cash, ATMs are usually your best bet for a fair exchange rate.

That said, be wary of debit card fees. "Those can add up," Leffel says. "The general rule of thumb is that bank cards connected to credit unions or brokerages are best."

And even if you're opting to use only plastic on your trip, make sure to read the fine print before you jet off. "Some credit cards have big foreign transaction fees that can add another 3 percent to purchases," he says. Bonus tip: Bring a spare card, in case one gets lost or eaten by a machine.

When it comes to your cell phone plan, Leffel says roaming fees are the greatest danger to your budget — and can add hundreds to your bill if you're not careful.

So it's often better to only use data when you have Wi-Fi access, or avoid international roaming fees altogether by swapping your phone's U.S. SIM card for a local one — you can typically arrange for this at an airport shop or kiosk at your destination. Just double-check with your carrier that your cell phone supports this feature before you leave home.

2. Get creative with flight routes

"Often the most expensive aspect of international travel is getting there," Gorman says. To avoid blowing your entire vacation fund on plane tickets, she suggests setting up airfare alerts on sites like Airfarewatchdog and Hipmunk — and then be prepared to act quickly when an offer hits your inbox.

Another money saver? Flying into alternative airports — like Luton instead of Heathrow in London or Orly instead of Charles de Gaulle in Paris — which also happen to have shorter lines and fewer delays. Even if you tack on the cost of renting a car or taking a shuttle to your final destination, you're still usually better off, Leffel says.

There's also one other cost-saving flight hack that people often overlook: Book the final leg of your trip with a low-cost regional carrier. "Budget airlines serve the local market, so, for example, it may cost less to fly to Bangkok, and then you can book a flight from there to Phuket once you land, instead of booking an end-to-end flight."

3. Select an off-the-beaten-path locale

Nothing makes you yearn for the beach like a few feet of snow piling up at the end of your driveway. But instead of hitting up the most popular winter spots, try thinking outside the box.

Leffel says that certain parts of Asia — Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia — could be good international choices if you're after warm weather. There's not as much demand from the U.S., compared to more convenient high-season spots, like the Caribbean or Latin America — and that can mean less-inflated plane ticket prices.

"On top of that, it's much cheaper when you get there than many other parts of the world," Leffel adds.

3 ways to save on cruises

1. Look for "wave season" deals

"Each January, February, and March, cruise lines post deals that offer rather significant savings for cruisers. It's what's known in the industry as 'wave season,' " says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com.

Book during this time, and you'll not only find amazing last-minute discounts for your winter getaways — but year-round departures too.

"Deals could be in the form of discounted fares, but also added-value perks in the form of onboard credits or complimentary airfare, which could save a bundle on the overall cost of a cruise," Spencer Brown says.

Case in point: You may be able to score such benefits as a $250 credit to apply toward your drinks package — which could cost about $50 a day — to offset expenses.

Social-savvy vacationers can stay on top of special offers by following cruise lines and travel agents, who often advertise deals on their Twitter and Facebook accounts.

2. Pre-book activities and services

With a bevy of onboard entertainment and activities available to cruisers, it's easy to go overboard — on your spending. But safeguarding your sailing budget can be as simple as committing to a little strategic planning.

"Most cruise lines now offer advance booking of spa treatments, shore excursions and restaurants — and often create packages that offer discounts for bundling these features," Spencer Brown says.

In addition to saving money on discount packages, you'll alleviate the temptation to impulse-buy extras once you're on the ship and in a free-spending vacation mind-set.

And while you're planning, don't forget to budget for often-forgotten extras, like gratuities for wait staff and cabin stewards, service charges, and port-of-call fees. Sites like IndependentTraveler.com offer travel budget calculators that can help you compute fees in advance, so there won't be any surprises.

3. Consider an independent operator for shore excursions

Ship-sponsored trips tend to cost more than individually sourced ones because the cruise line does all the heavy lifting for you. They liaise with local companies to arrange for tours and transportation, make sure liability insurance needs are taken care of, and generally make the activity selection process as convenient as possible.

For cruisers who are comfortable with a little more autonomy and are looking for popular itineraries, like snorkeling or shopping trips, working directly with a local tour company cuts out the middle man — and saves some cash.

But a word of warning: "Ships will wait if one of its tours arrives late. But if you book your own and you miss the ship, you'll have to get yourself to the next port," Spencer Brown says. "It happens more often than you'd imagine, so do make sure you leave plenty of time to get back onboard."

This story was originally published on LearnVest. LearnVest is a program for your money. Read their stories and use their tools at LearnVest.com.

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