COURTESY SETH KUGEL
Budget travel used to be so easy: Get your travel agent to dig up the best airfare, pick a hotel with one "$" next to its name in a guidebook, and pray for the best. Now we spend weeks researching online — and we still have to pray for the best. After all, it's travel: You can never completely control the outcome.
But you can get close. In years of obsessively planning my own budget trips as the Frugal Traveler columnist for the New York Times, I've found that a mix of online savvy and off-line creativity can mean big savings.
Air-travel booking sites might all seem alike. Expedia or Travelocity — what's the difference? Sometimes nothing, such as when you're looking for the cheapest fare on a busy route and your dates are inflexible. But retirees (and writers like me) are often flexible, and that allows for better deals. I love Google's Flight Explorer feature, where you just select a region of the world and get shown all your options — mapped out in bar graphs — for the next two months and beyond. Other sites shine in specific situations. Routehappy.com, for one, picks flights with roomier seats or Wi-Fi, based on your preferences.
The car-rental experience can be maddening, no matter how experienced the traveler. Once, when planning a weekend trip from New York City to Lake Placid, upstate, I thought I had scored a great deal on a compact car by renting in less expensive New Jersey. But I got stuck with an SUV, and my gas costs doubled, obliterating any savings. I like to use AutoSlash.com, which will monitor the changing market for better deals and rebook for you. And I advise everyone to do their homework when it comes to car rental insurance. Before you pick up the car, call your insurance agency and credit card provider and find out what they cover. Then call to confirm that the rental site has the size car you want.
Where to Stay
For regular hotels, I use Booking.com — I think the reviews tend to be more dependable than those of its competitors, and its prices are rock bottom. But there are lots of creative ways to save on lodging. Consider private rooms at youth hostels, for example, though these days you can scratch the "youth." I've met many savvy older travelers at hostels, which often offer basic but comfortable private rooms for a lower price than at an equivalent hotel. Try hostelz.com for options, scanning reviews carefully for bathroom conditions.
You can also save big using "opaque" sites such as Priceline and Hotwire, where you choose a neighborhood and a star level, then allow the site to pick the hotel. You may save some 20 percent; I've saved more than 50 percent. Plus, note that travel booking is migrating to mobile (as in phones and tablets). Companies often offer discounts on their apps that don't appear on their websites.
Seth Kugel writes the Frugal Traveler column for the New York Times.