I was a wide-eyed schoolboy when my grandfather, an active man of 77, told me with a beaming smile, “Travel stimulates a full life.” At the time, he was off with my equally spirited grandmother on yet another trip, this time a cruise along the Turkish coast and Greek islands. He continued, “Travel is an extraordinary experience, but you have to have a good plan.”
My grandfather was right. Sure, there are times when you want to just strike out on impulse without plans, reservations or schedules. Such trips can be highly adventurous and gratifying, but most travelers are more comfortable with some kind of agenda, and a good plan can help you get the best bang for your buck (or for your euro and peso).
With a well thought-out trip, your travels will be more enjoyable and less costly, and you can take advantage of preferential services and amenities. So let’s look at some tips for making a good travel plan.
Remember supply and demand
The first economic principle I learned in college was the law of supply and demand. In travel, it means that travel suppliers will offer incentives to offset lower demand for a season or destination. Knowing how to travel around peak demand can bring you significant rewards, including low rates, pleasant weather, uncrowded museums and preferential service.
Travelers who aren’t constrained by school holidays or company-imposed vacation dates can pick the best times to pack their bags. A little research on the Internet or a quick chat with a travel agent will tell you which off-peak dates savvy travelers recommend for your destination. By traveling off-peak, you can satisfy champagne tastes on a penny-pinching budget – and you can do it year-round.
Fall into luxury
Traveling in autumn isn’t only cheaper, it’s often more pleasant (think smaller crowds, a less blistering sun, fewer squalling kids and big shopping discounts). One traveler summed it up to me as a time when airfares and hotel prices are at their lowest, and the best rooms are just waiting for you to turn the key.
Low-rate destinations such as Bermuda, Bali and the Mediterranean all offer good weather for sightseeing and swimming in fall. Rates at some hotels fall as much as 50 percent, and flights can be 30 percent cheaper. Many seasoned travelers wouldn’t dream of traveling to these places at any other time.
Win in winter
Many temperate destinations offer excellent winter deals. For example, many hotels in California’s Monterey County offer a free night for every paid night from November through January.
For snow enthusiasts, Quebec City is a great choice — and winter is the only time you can catch the city’s famed Winter Carnival. Even with Carnival, hotel rates can be low: The posh Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, for example, offers a 50 percent discount from January through March.
Spot spring deals
Discounts abound in the spring. Just avoid any destination catering to students on spring break. Before and after spring break, hotels and resorts in Hawaii slash rates, and European holidays are almost always less costly in April and May.
Four Seasons in summer
Even summer offers deals — particularly if you head for the Sun Belt. For example, the Four Seasons hotels in both Scottsdale, Ariz., and Dallas offer rooms for less than $150 a day, and both have highly acclaimed spas and golf courses.
Think upside down
The time to go Down Under is in our late spring and summer, when it’s fall and winter in Australia. That’s when you can get real savings on airfares. The exchange rate is favorable, too. Smart travelers enjoy the best hotels and dine in the finest restaurants at this time of year, saving up to 40 percent.
Follow the dollar
It’s no secret that a strong U.S. dollar can deliver a better travel experience for less money. Currently, the dollar goes a lot further in Canada and in many Central and South American countries, while the current strength of the euro will increase the cost of your European trip by about 20 percent.
Arriving at a ticket counter, hotel desk, car rental counter, or cruise line and plunking down your credit card in front of the attendant is not the best way to get good value. It’s actually the worst.
On ordinary itineraries, you’ll save time and money if you call your travel providers direct or book your reservations on the Internet. Recently, some airlines have instituted a surcharge on tickets purchased through the airlines’ toll-free 800 numbers. If you do not have access to the Internet personally (or through family, friends or a local library), call the airline and explain your situation. Most likely, they will waive this fee for you.
When planning an exotic trip or traveling to a new destination, don’t do it yourself. Seek the assistance of a good travel agent. He’ll help you plan a smart itinerary that is flexible enough to allow for changes in plans and unexpected events, but still save you money.
By all means, ask questions — even if you think you already know the answer. While planning a trip from Orange County to Atlanta this past summer, I was told that a coach ticket would cost me $1,024; when I asked about the cost of a first-class ticket, I found it was less than half that price: $496!
Make memberships pay
If you can show evidence of membership in organizations such as the American Automobile Association (AAA) or the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), you’ll save an additional 20 percent to 25 percent.
Leverage loyalty Now that you’ve got the best basic price and a well-planned journey, it’s time to get a little more luxury than you paid for.
Remember that loyalty pays — even if you travel only once or twice a year. Travel providers want to keep you as a customer, so they will reward repeat business with preferential services, prime upgrades and special discounts.
All you have to do is establish a history of loyalty and mention it when you travel. To maximize your advantage and bargaining power, limit your purchases to a select group of quality travel providers, and be sure to join their frequent user programs.
My favorite strategy for getting a great travel experience requires no planning at all: Just be pleasant! When you show appreciation for the hard work of travel providers, you become a pleasure to do business with. Relax, smile, commiserate, spread some human kindness, and often as not, rewards will follow.
This was true for my friend Laurie, who got stranded at the Miami airport after an equipment failure on her plane. While waiting to rebook her ticket, Laurie saw the customer in front of her berate the ticket agent, blaming her for the delay. When it was Laurie’s turn, she kindly told the agent to take a minute to recover from that passenger’s rudeness. The agent was so touched by this gesture that she booked Laurie on another airline’s flight — in first class.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained” – that’s something else my grandfather taught me.
So, do your research, learn these tips, plan well and go have fun.
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. or . Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting .