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How to book a cheaper spring vacation

Want to get away for less? Do the opposite of what you normally do — and save.

by Jean Chatzky /
If you're flexible and shift your dates by a week or so to avoid that 13-day spring break window, you could save 25 percent on your ticket. Ildo Frazao / Getty Images/iStockphoto
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#SpringBreak isn’t just for college students. Last year, almost 8 in 10 U.S. adults said they planned to head off for some pleasure travel come spring. Fun, but pricey — particularly as worldwide passenger demand for air travel rose more than 7 percent last year. So how do you get the vacation you want and a price you can afford?

Flip the planning process on its head, says Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, a website and email newsletter. When it comes to vacation planning, most people think: 1) Where do I want to go? 2) When do I want to go? 3) What are prices like? That makes price your last priority, so it's no wonder many people get stuck eating up a huge share of their budget on airfare alone. Flipping the process — booking inexpensive flights first, then forging ahead to finalize the other details of your trip — requires a somewhat open mind about where you want to go and a willingness to act a little impulsively. But it can pay off big time. Here are three things you need to do.

Being open to smaller regional airports can be a boon, since some smaller carriers are adding new fares and routes consistently.

Being open to smaller regional airports can be a boon, since some smaller carriers are adding new fares and routes consistently.

1. Master the search

Deal newsletters like Secret Flying, The Flight Deal and HolidayPirates can give you a general lay of the land. But mastering the search process is imperative. The best tool for this? Google Flights, hands down, says Emily McNutt, news editor at The Points Guy. Begin with Google Flights’s map tool, which allows users to virtually move around and compare flight prices in destinations all over the world. Google Flights also allows you to put in five origin airports and five destination airports, then compare the cheapest possible price for any of those 25 routes for any given date. Being open to smaller regional airports can be a boon, since some smaller carriers are adding new fares and routes consistently. (For example, McNutt searched for a flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport to London and found one for $379 round-trip, but when she looked at Stewart International Airport (about 60 miles north of Manhattan), she found a flight to Dublin for $250 round-trip. Then, she could take a local flight from Dublin to London for about $50, saving about $80 total.)

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2. Book now for April or May

Close to half of employees plan their vacation less than six weeks out, according to a report from Project: Time Off. If you plan to travel in April or May, now is the time to go ahead and book. Don’t procrastinate hoping for a last minute standby fare, says Keyes — “those don’t really exist anymore.” Airlines have about 13 years of digital history on everyone, and “inside 30 days, the airlines know exactly how you’re going to react,” says Rick Seaney, co-founder and CEO of FareCompare.com, a website comparing flight prices. Typically, airlines have planned price hikes that usually correspond to 30 days out, 21 days out, 14 days out, seven days out, three days out and a walkup fare, and each is progressively more expensive, says Seaney. One way to save is to play around with your dates. During that peak spring break time, departing on a Tuesday instead of Friday could save you 20 percent. And if you shift your dates by a week or so to avoid that 13-day spring break window, you could save 25 percent on your ticket, says Liana Corwin, travel expert at Hopper. (And for next spring or the coming summer, try to start even a little earlier.)

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3. Buy, then decide

The best flight fares that pop up are unadvertised, says Keyes. But because they're unadvertised, you often have no idea how long they're going to last — and the best ones sometimes disappear within 12 or 24 hours. That means if you do find a great deal — for example, a $400 round-trip ticket to New Zealand that usually costs around $1,500 — consider jumping on it immediately. Yes, for most purchases it’s smart to sleep on it before making a decision, but in this case, there’s a way to have your cake and eat it, too. U.S. law requires that as long as you book a flight directly with an airline, you have 24 hours after purchasing to cancel that ticket with absolutely no penalty. (The only exception is if it’s about a week before departure — for that, you have to check the rules for each specific airline.) So you can feasibly purchase right away to lock in the lowest price for yourself, then decide within 24 hours whether to keep it or cancel.

Here's a head start

Finally, here are some destinations to keep in mind that should see a drop in flight prices over the next few months. Flights to Aruba should be around $500 (25 percent savings from normal), while flights to both Portugal and Madrid should be around $700 (also close to 25 percent savings from normal), according to data from Hopper, an app that tracks flight prices and alerts users when it's the best time to buy. European flights in general have been offering up good deals (Keyes says its reasonable to aim for a round-trip ticket for less than $500.) If you’re heading to Asia, watch for prices in the low- to mid-$500 range, with flights to China at $100 less. And if you're set on a beach vacation, think about the 50th state. Keyes has seen tickets to Hawaii in the $300 range from the West Coast and the $400 range from the rest of the U.S. Aloha.

With Hayden Field

GET MORE SIMPLE MONEY HACKS THAT'LL HELP YOU SAVE

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