Photo (cc) by MikeBehnken
Ready for a vacation? Airfare’s gone up seven times this year already, checking a single bag on the plane can cost you $25, and then you get to the hotel: parking fee, Wi-Fi and other service fees. And a car rental, too? Ouch.
Sure, travel’s never been cheap. But the double whammy of a recovering economy and soaring airfares are making this travel season an especially challenging one. The good news? According to frequent traveler Nicole Hockin, you don’t have to play the nickel-and-dime game and you don’t have to be someone special to get special treatment.
“You don’t have to be a celebrity or executive to feel like a VIP,” says Hockin, the author of TravelSmartBlog.com and a Hotels.com spokesperson. She explains how to get a little extra TLC to Money Talks reporter Jim Robinson in the video below — check it out, then read on for more.
According to Hockin, the most important tip to getting VIP treatment is to plan well. “You have to take control of your vacation, and it starts with planning,” she says. “Plan in advance, don’t leave things to chance.”
First step? Look regularly for the best prices. If you don’t know where you want to go, sign up for deal alerts on sites like Travelzoo, TripAlertz, and LivingSocial Escapes. Hockin adds, “Hotels.com has a great one for last-minute deals every Tuesday.”
What you’re looking for is not just a great price — but also included amenities and perks that make you feel like a special guest.
“I always look for things beyond price,” says Hockin. “Not just ‘stay two nights get a third night free,’ but maybe ‘stay two nights and earn a $50 resort credit’ that can be used at restaurants and casinos. Spend their money, not yours.”
Don’t forget to check on things like free Wi-Fi and breakfast, too.
Once you reach your destination, you probably need a way to get around — including how to get from the airport to your hotel. Sometimes a rental car makes sense — check out 5 Tips for a Better Deal on Rental Cars – but also look into the costs and convenience of public transit, train and cab fares, and even what’s within walking distance. Also check if free shuttle service is included with anything you’re already paying for.
Always ask for more – and less
There’s nothing wrong with being greedy on vacation, as long as you’re nice about it. Ask for upgrades.
“I was in Las Vegas staying at a great hotel with just a regular room and I said, ‘Is there anything else available, any opportunity to be upgraded tonight?’” says Hockin. “They said ‘yeah, sure.’ The next thing I know I’m in a junior suite on the 29th floor overlooking the city for not a penny more.”
We’ve mentioned this tip and others before, in 8 Tips to Save at Any Hotel. Ask them to waive frivolous fees, too — like if they charge you for parking when you didn’t bring a car.
“People ask how can I avoid paying that resort charge. Just say, ‘Hey, I didn’t use this’ or ‘I don’t understand why I need to pay, is it really necessary,’ or ‘I’d really like to come back here but that fee bugs me, is that something that can be waived?’” says Hockin.
What’s the worst that can happen? They say “too bad.” But Hockin says she often gets a positive response. “They want to keep your loyalty, and if you approach it nicely, they will return it nicely and credit you back,” says Hockin.
Hockin also suggests making nice with the concierge for freebies and advice. “Celebrities have their publicists, we have the concierge. Often they have discount tickets or free ones that they can pass along to you,” she says.
Hotels do want your loyalty — and many have loyalty programs that can sometimes make it worthwhile. Hotels.com also has Welcome Rewards, which earns you a free night’s stay after every 10 total booked nights, with no blackouts or restrictions.
But if you’re not a frequent traveler and want to try something new, or find a more personal experience — not to mention save a few bucks — you might try renting a private home or a room in one. There are tons of sites that hook travelers up with private property owners, including Homeaway, iStopOver, Vacation Rental by Owner, and Trip Advisor. (To find more, simply do a search for “Vacation Rentals.”) This article from Independent Traveler also offers tips and links to a couple of dozen sites.
Vacation rentals are simple concept: People with extra space — whether it’s a vacation villa on the beach or a spare bedroom in the apartment — can rent it out at rates they name for a time they specify. Travelers, meanwhile, can make custom requests and see if anybody bites.
iStopOver CEO Anthony Lipschitz describes it this way: “You can go into the site and say, ‘I’m going to Miami and I would like tonic water and no feather pillows, and, you know, 12 Coronas in the fridge.’ And owners can then respond and say we can accommodate you or no we can’t.”
We put the site to the test by doing a search in Miami. For $89 a night, you can rent a cottage 5 minutes from the beach with a pool and free Wi-Fi, and other optional services — like a beer-stocked fridge or airport pickup.
Plus, Lipschitz says, private owners are more knowledgeable than hotel concierges. Want a relaxing local coffee shop? “You can have a concierge tell you go to Starbucks,” says Lipschitz, “Or an owner tells you ‘oh, go see Mario down the corner, he’s the best barista in the neighborhood.’”
You can read personal reviews and information from the host before booking, and the site handles the potentially awkward part of the transaction. “We act as a clearinghouse,” says Lipschitz. “We collect the payment and when the guest checks in to the property and everything is OK and they’re comfortable, they provide a security code to the host and we release the funds.”
For an even less expensive alternative, offer to swap your home for someone else’s: See our story Best Hotel Price This Summer? $0.
We’ve got more: try 17 Tips to Save On Vacation Home Rentals. And for other vacation advice, try 10 Things to Know Before You Book a Cruise, 4 Ways to Save Big at Disney, and Top 2011 Vacation Hotspots.