By Travel columnist
updated 3/4/2005 7:04:15 PM ET 2005-03-05T00:04:15

Looking for great travel deals is a popular pastime. It seems everyone has a different strategy for reaching the holy grail of travel — a great experience at a reasonable price.

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That used to be pretty easy. Value-conscious travelers just booked a trip during the off-season. But now that everyone is traveling during the off-season, the off-season has become the on-season.

The real insiders, meantime, have shifted from a seasonal strategy to a contrarian strategy.

In essence, a contrarian traveler looks for circumstances or events that have lower demand for a particular travel service or destination. In a time of higher demand (and prices) it may be the only way to get a luxury trip at a low price. Here are five ways to go contrarian:

  1. Buy directly. Direct contact with a travel provider is important for building a lasting relationships with an airline, hotel or car rental company. Once you’re in the door you can ask for a better rate or an upgrade.
  2. Profit when they’re not. Opportunities are created by what I call “situational uncertainty.” This occurs when a country or region experiences a natural disaster, terrorist activity, political upheaval or economic depression. Often, the unexpected situation can make the location more desirable. After an attack on German buses in Luxor Egypt, for example, security forces were on high alert with few tourists vying for highly discounted $50 rooms in five-star luxury hotels overlooking the Nile. When a rare tsunami hit the Asian Pacific region, thousands of hotel rooms went empty, depressing prices and the local workforce. Supportive travelers got both a great deal and also helped locals keep their jobs and feed their families by pumping money into the local economy.
  3. Follow the dollar. What a difference an exchange rate can make. In the early 2000’s my European trip came with an automatic 30 percent discount because of a strong dollar. Years later, the same trip cost me 30 percent more because of a drop in the dollar’s value. During a jaunt to Buenos Aires, a favorable dollar help me enjoyed a café latte and croissant breakfast on a tree-line street café similar to Barcelona, all for only $4. I also stayed on the club-level floor at the Four Seasons for $225 a night with full concierge service and meal presentations, and enjoyed a signature massage for a mere $65.
  4. Be flexible. The travel market is in constant flux and liable to change at any moment. Developing flexibility with respect to your travel dates, destinations, and accommodations will yield excellent luxury travel bargains. I experienced this when I was asked by CBS to do a Sunday morning interview in New York. My choice of last-minutes flights offered me coach on Saturday or a $304 first-class late night Friday flight, arriving Saturday morning. Adding to my value, The Grand Hyatt allowed a 7 a.m. check-in. So basically, I got two hotel days for one, and enjoyed a wonderful Saturday afternoon in the city.
  5. Avoid trends. The worst time or place to travel is anywhere everyone else is going. Think about it. If a travel destination is full to the brim with travelers, there is less incentive for hotels to give you a discount or a free upgrade. Also, it’s more likely that your experience will not be as good since the employees will be so busy, leaving less time for personal attentive service.

With airlines flying at capacity levels and luxury hotels experiencing higher occupancies, getting a luxury bargain at a discount is becoming increasingly difficult. The best solution is to have a contrarian mindset.

Follow this simple strategy of avoiding crowds, be a travel leader, not a follower, and you’ll experience great travel at discounted prices.

Joel Widzer is an expert on loyalty and frequent flier programs. He is the author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," a guidebook on traveling in high style at budget-friendly prices. E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Widzer's forum.


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