With gas heading for $5 a gallon, parents who hoped to take their families on a road trip this summer may have thought it was out of the question.
But travel experts say that with a little creative thinking and flexibility, belt-tightening consumers can still manage to get away — even at the last minute. The key is a willingness to adjust your schedule, the length of stay and perhaps even the destination.
Desperate to hit the road? Consider renting a car to actually save money. Using a vehicle that gets better gas mileage than the SUV in the driveway may help save enough to make a trip affordable, said Brian Ek, general manager of Priceline.com Inc.'s "PriceBreakers" discount programs.
"I run these numbers it seems every summer," Ek said, estimating it's been four years since he tested the idea, assuming the rental would be an economical car without mileage limits. "This is the first summer that it's actually cheaper to rent a car."
In deciding whether you can pull off a last-minute vacation, the first step should be a bit of self-assessment, said Jeanne McMurray, owner of McMurray Travel Service in Westerville, Ohio.
"One of the first things I'm going to ask you," she said, "is what kind of vacation you like?" While some people might enjoy a week at a beach, others would get bored — and there's no sense spending money on a vacation that doesn't fit your interests, even if it's a good deal.
Once that is settled, it's time to explore the options available. "If you're someone who really needs a vacation but don't have a lot of money, just try to be flexible with your destinations," suggested Heather Leiseman, senior director of merchandising for Orbitz.com. Instead of pricey Miami, a stay a bit north in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., might fit the budget, she said.
While there may seem to be few discounts on airline tickets — as the carriers deal with high fuel costs by raising prices and adding on fees — McMurray said there are tricks for finding deals. "If I have you buying last-minute airfares, there are certain cities that from experience I know are cheaper, and there are certain days that are cheaper coming and going," she said. Las Vegas, for instance, is less expensive to visit during the week than on a weekend.
Likewise, there are often better deals for flying earlier or later in the day, Ek said. "Check out different times, because if you're OK flying during times when business travelers aren't flying, say midday or late in the evening, you're very likely to find a cheaper price."
Web sites like Priceline and Orbitz also make some special deals available, often for last-minute travel. "There's a variety of different offers," said Ek, who sifts through deals from airlines and travel companies before posting what he considers the best on the site. "I can tell you there are deals out there if you look."
Leiseman noted that it's important to consider all the costs of a vacation, not just getting there. Options like resorts that include meals and drinks may help families save money over locations that require paying for everything separately.
Ek also recommends booking your flights, hotel and rental car as a package rather than separately, to reduce costs, and checking to see if you qualify for discounts for things like military service, professional organizations or club memberships. And McMurray said it helps to consider what's necessary in various locations. Big cities like San Francisco and Chicago, for instance, have extensive public transit systems that can eliminate the need to rent a car.
Bargain hunters might even benefit from procrastinating this season. The weak economy has hit some resort areas hard, meaning more rentals are available than normal for this time of the year.
"Down here, everybody's trying to figure out the most effective and unique way to bring them," said Hope Robbins, marketing director for Booe Realty in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
She said rental property owners are offering free gas cards, free nights added on to short stays and other gimmicks to woo customers, including specials for last-minute rentals with up to 25 percent discounts.
"The biggest thing is, definitely, flexibility this summer is going to be rewarded," Ek said.