Throughout history, millions of vacations have gone askew for variety of reasons, from the Griswold family's cross-country drive to Walley World (fiction, yes — but no doubt representative of many real family road trips), to the 2009 MSC Melody cruise that nearly got hijacked by pirates. Naturally, attacks from pirates and crazy relatives cannot be stopped by any measure of good planning. But more common travel mishaps, like busted trip budgets or overpriced flights, are easily avoided if you plan right.
After talking to a host of well-traveled friends and acquaintances, and communicating with IndependentTraveler.com's travel community through our forums, Facebook, and Twitter, I've identified five all-too-common trip planning mistakes made by even experienced globetrotters.
Being inflexible with your dates
Choosing set dates for your trip and then refusing to budge is a surefire way to pay too much for your flight. You can save hundreds of dollars on airfare by pushing your travel dates around by just a few days. Ticket prices tend to be lowest on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and the most expensive on weekends, but this may vary. I searched for a nonstop flight from Washington D.C. to Paris departing in May on the United Airlines Web site and found that flights departing on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday came in cheapest at $762.20 roundtrip before taxes. Flights departing and returning on weekend days totaled $845.30 roundtrip.
If you're planning to fly during high-traffic holidays like spring break or Christmas, be prepared to pay top dollar for air transportation. Budget travelers may want to seek alternatives to holiday travel, whether it means taking the kids out of school or begging the big boss for some extra vacation days.
Although the dates of your hotel stay are probably at the mercy of the travel dates you set for your flight, keep in mind that flexibility pays off at many hotels as well. Whether it's weekday specials or low off-season rates, a bounty of hotel bargains exists for the traveler who's willing to move his or her travel dates around.
The days when most travelers would call up a travel agent, book a trip, hang up the phone and be done with it are long gone. Now, the Internet is a hodgepodge of hundreds of competing travel provider sites, all of whom are touting the "best deals" and "lowest prices" — and 9 out of 10 times it's a mistake to book the first thing you see. While I can't guarantee that a single travel site will always give you the lowest rates, what I can promise is that a thorough search of the major airlines and travel providers will almost always yield the best rate for your trip.
Aggregators like Kayak.com or TripAdvisor Flights scan multiple airlines to serve up a buffet of fares in one easy place. The editors at IndependentTraveler.com scour airfare deals daily and post the best ones on our discount airfare deals page, which is worth a look if you're in the market for a flight.
Unless you're staring at a jackpot fare that is mind-numbingly affordable, say, something like a $400 roundtrip ticket from the West Coast to Europe in the summer (jackpot!), keep looking —you can always come back. (Well, almost always. We've found that some airfares posted on airline Web sites can change in a matter of minutes ... which brings us back to the point about jackpot fares.) Learn more about how to find a great flight deal in Deal or No Deal: Evaluating Airfares.
I'm a big advocate of the travel deal. Full price should be pared. Bargains should be booked. But, as with most things in life, one can take the deals thing too far. Travel deals often work against the consumer, and this is exactly how some businesses can afford to offer certain types of promotions.
On IndependentTraveler.com's Facebook page, Pam Kreher Powroznik posted about the worst mistake she made when planning a trip: "Spending $100 on the Paris Visitor Pass and then realizing the only thing we'd use it for was climbing to the top of the Arc de Triomphe — which we chose not to do! Good thing we had that 'Whoops Factor' built into our budget."
Beware of discounted tickets or passes that you may not actually use. Also beware of discounts or special offers for hotels, cruises or packages that you probably wouldn't book in the first place, or that exceed your budget even with that percentage off or a free night's stay. Sure, it feels like you're getting more value for your money if you're paying less than the original price for accommodations. But if you're still paying more than you would at a comparable, cheaper place, what's the point?
Cramming too much in
If you're dropping $2,000 per person on your vacation, I don't blame you for wanting to get your dollars' worth by stuffing an extensive schedule of sightseeing into your itinerary. But it's key to leave plenty of room for the unexpected in your trip, whether it's a missed connection in Chicago or a broken-down bus in Costa Rica. (It's also smart to leave some space for spontaneous adventure. You could come across a fantastic deserted beach or undiscovered locals-only cafe when you least expect it.)
In particular, too-tight flight connections are a big travel mistake. I once booked a multi-leg flight on Expedia.com that included less than 60 minutes between connecting flights at the Charles de Gaulle Airport. My first flight was about 20 minutes late, and I ended up sprinting for 15 minutes through the airport to my gate, where I was faced with a long, snaking airport security line. By this time I was sweating profusely, and I was pretty certain that I was not going to make it onto my next flight. I got lucky when a Frenchman in the security line noticed my hysteria and got out of line to tell airport security, in French, that I was about to miss my flight. (When I had previously attempted to communicate this in a mishmash of English and lapsed college-level French with an American accent, security had instructed me to stay put.) Thanks to the kind stranger, I was allowed to bypass the line and I made it onto my flight with only minutes to spare.
Keep in mind: That itinerary was originally created by Expedia, which, like a lot of travel providers and airlines, doesn't always give travelers enough time in between flights. Always be sure to leave plenty of time for connections. On average, one hour in between domestic flights and two hours in between international flights is best, but this may vary.
Read more about this in How to Create the Perfect Itinerary.
Even travelers who carefully draw up a budget before their big trip can end up with financial plans slaughtered by baggage fees, airline surcharges, costs of airline meals and snacks, ATM fees, hotel service charges, car rental fees, Internet charges, taxes, tips, local payments and other pesky little (and big) fees. Overlook the surcharges and your trip could cost hundreds more than you bargained for.
The nickel-and-diming airfares with their outrageous surcharges are by far the worst offenders. But hotels, cruise lines, all-inclusive resorts and car rental companies aren't far behind. Your best bet is to always read the fine print, and to ask your travel provider to outline exactly what is and what isn't included in the price. Don't let phrases like "all-inclusive" or even "free" fool you. Plus, be aware that many hotels and B&B's, especially overseas, list rates per person, per night as opposed to per room, per night.
Unexpected mishaps like theft or loss of an important item may also destroy a well-planned budget. Sarah Schlichter, Editor of IndependentTraveler.com, says she always budgets an extra $25 to $50 a day for miscellaneous expenses when traveling. If you leave some wiggle room in your budget for extra fees you didn't consider, like a battery charger for your camera to replace the one you lost or an unplanned cab ride, you'll be less inclined to fret over the expenditure (and most importantly, you'll be able to pay for it!).