Travel Smart: Getting Creative in a Tough Economy

Gourmet’s travel editor reveals how to get the best deals on travel to your dream destination—and how to find great values while you’re there.

Think Big and Go for Your Dream Destination

Think about where you’ve always wanted to go—Europe; the South Pacific; Africa—and don’t rule it out. Be sure to check out the special deals at hotels and resorts first before you lock in an airfare. Doing it the other way around could leave you with a great low fare to nowhere if the destination still proves too expensive.

Don’t Hoard Those Frequent-Flier Miles

Hotels in some top international tourist destinations (like Bangkok, for example) are going for $50 a night, but the airfare can still be high. Now is the time to cash in those stockpiled miles. But not only for a free ticket. Redeem them for discounted hotels and rental-car rates. Consider upgrading a coach-class ticket to business class and turn an ordinary trip into a comfortable adventure.

Think Off-Season

· The Caribbean has always been on sale in the summertime (when, incidentally, it’s not that hot, with temperatures in the 80s and wonderful trade winds). This year that sale is going to be bigger than ever. There isn’t a hotel anywhere in the Islands that hasn’t lowered its prices or come out with some kind of deal.

· Summer is family time in Hawaii, but that doesn’t mean higher prices. There’s as much discounting going on here as anywhere else this year. And it’s great for singles, too.

· Want to stay closer to home? Florida is brimming with low-cost holiday packages, and you can save this year by driving instead of flying. With so many hip new hotels in South Beach (like the Victor and the Gansevoort South, plus the revamped ‘50s icon, the Fontainebleau, up the road), you can bet you’ll find a great place to stay in the middle of the action but for half the winter rate.

· How about a ski resort—even if you don’t ski? Most mountain resorts in the U.S. (think Colorado, Utah, Vermont) are even more beautiful in the summertime and a good deal cheaper. They’re perfect for nature-loving singles and families who want to hike, bike, and swim.

Think Creatively About Value

How about renting a cottage in Ireland? A farmhouse in France? Or a home in the Napa Valley? These places aren’t necessarily expensive: They come with two or three bedrooms, and their kitchens make it possible to stay in and cook money-saving meals. Get a few friends together—or hold a family reunion—and you’ll not only save a bundle, but you’ll also have the kind of holiday you wouldn’t be able to pull off in a cramped hotel room.

And don’t rule out villas—in Italy, maybe, the Caribbean, or Hawaii. The word “villa” sounds fancy, and some certainly can be, but the majority are simple homes for rent that, again, save a fortune, this time on more sumptuous accommodations—if you’re willing to share.

Think Europe

Sure, summer is the height of the tourist season, but this year traffic is down so much that everybody wants to talk. If you’ve been putting off a trip, now’s the time to act, especially with the British pound and the Euro lower against the dollar than they have been in years.

Think Package

Forget the “if it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” idea. A package is a great way to save big and still have your freedom. Here’s how it works: Some major operators, often national airlines, will buy up hotel rooms in a given city hoping to sell them back with airfare included. (This allows them, for example, to provide package trips to London that include free nights and discounts at their discretion.)

Think Cruise

There’s no better value, because everything is included in one single price, from the lavish spread at the midnight buffet to those over-the-top after-dinner shows. And remember: You only have to unpack once. Treat the ship as your floating hotel for the entire trip, and relax as it takes you to all the places you want to see. It’s a great way for families to travel together, with no worry about the kids roaming free. If you still think that cruising is only for the silvered-hair set, take a look at the various cruise lines out there that cater to singles, food lovers, and anyone with a special interest (i.e., archaeology, eco-tourism, fitness). Get your own group together and forget about the other passengers. And if you’re worried about price, you’ll be amazed at the deals from cruise lines right now. Remember, if a ship sails half full, the line loses money, so they’re willing to make a deal to get you on board.

Think Close to Home

Try this simple game: Take out a map of your area and draw a circle around your house anywhere from 30 to 50 miles in diameter. Then pick a place within that circle you’ve always wanted to visit. Make planning the trip a family affair or something fun for a group of friends who want a quick getaway—put someone in charge of checking out a B&B association on the Web; have someone else contact the local chamber of commerce to find out about festivals; and ask yet another person to draw up a list of attractions in the area.

Always Ask for a Deal

This might be the most important tip for traveling in 2009: Never take any price at face value. Always ask about a deal or a discount. All they can say is “no.” But you don’t have to take no for an answer anymore, now that nearly everyone is willing to bargain.

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