vacation-7-10-homespunSaving money on a summer vacation used to be a matter of personal discretion. Today, it’s a science, part of a massive U.S. travel-advice industry with thousands of analysts, organizations, publications and websites.

“The bad economy has cut into household travel budgets, and more people are staying closer to home, but this is actually a great time to save,” said Los Angeles-based travel consultant Mark Katz. “There’s never been so much information available to travelers, and since the industry is competing for every tourist dollar, there are many great deals.

“I call it a traveler’s market.”

The bargains are out there.

“Those who do vacation this summer will find a plethora of attractive discounts and special offers resulting in some outstanding vacation values,” said Robert L. Darbelnet, AAA president and CEO. “If you can afford to go, this summer is a smart time to travel.”

But where to start if you’re looking to save money while enjoying some quality time or family fun in a recession-battered economy? Travel magazines and books contain valuable tips, but the Internet is today’s travel planner of choice, according to industry experts.

A Google search of “saving on summer vacation” brings up 41,600,000 results. Changing “vacation” to “travel” balloons results to 121,000,000. A search of “businesses” and “travel advice” produces 99,500,000.

Bargain-hunters can whittle down the myriad options with specific keywords and knowledge of travel-niche websites.

If you’re going the Google or Yahoo search-engine route, narrow things down. For example, don’t search for “Yosemite lodgings.” Get specific with “discount motels near Yosemite National Park.”

Want to know the price of gas where you’re going? Try www.gasbuddy.com to get a reading in all 50 states. AAA’s www.fuelcostcalculator.com can calculate fuel costs along a given travel route. AAA also has a link to map out the most-direct driving route (www.csaa.com).

One area that was once the near-exclusive domain of AAA is the pre-vacation car checklist-things to do to your motor vehicle to ensure money-saving performance. Now, scores of auto-repair chains, safety organizations and travel groups publish such checklists, but the basics remain the same when it comes to saving on fuel costs:

-Underinflated tires hinder gas mileage, picking your pocket at the gas pump. Keep tires at pressures recommended in your car owner’s manual to improve gas mileage by up to 5%.
-Use the grade of oil recommended in the owner’s manual, and you’ll likely see a 2% improvement in gas mileage.
-Do you really need four sweaters for that weeklong stay on the Monterey Peninsula? Lightening up the luggage will reduce car weight and through-the-air drag, another potential 2% bonus on gas mileage.
-Other fuel-mileage savers include a full-service engine tune-up, easing up on the gas pedal and cutting back on hard-braking maneuvers.

Most car adjustments and safety checks you can do yourself. If you want a professional mechanic to do the job, that’s OK. But check the newspaper and Internet before going to your favorite gas station or auto-service shop. Many have special deals and coupons this time of year.

High gasoline costs have prompted a new wave of ventures designed to help everyone from “staycationers”-those opting for vacations at home or close to home-to long-haul travelers save money at gas pumps.

Petrofix, a newly formed San Francisco company, enables customers to buy gas at a fixed price without locking them in if prices fall.

At www.petrofix.com, customers can quickly buy gas “coverage” at a rate that fits their driving habits. Plans vary in length-three months, six months, a year or longer-and customers can get gas at any station in the nation as usual.

If gas prices go up, Petrofix pays customers the difference by check or credit card at the end of the month. If gas prices go down, customers are not locked into a specific rate and still benefit from lower pump prices.

Roadside-assistance programs have taken some of the worry out of car breakdowns on long-distance car vacations, but not everyone has them. Car repair hundreds of miles from home can bust the travel budget and spoil a vacation. RepairPal is among the recent arrivals offering relief.

Founded in 2007 in Emeryville, Calif., the RepairPal site (www.repairpal.com) provides information on how much you should pay for a specific repair on your vehicle. The database includes more than 173,000 shops nationwide, covering most cars manufactured after 1990. The RepairPal application for iPhone users can be downloaded free at the iPhone App Store.

Car costs are key, but food and lodgings also take big bites out of the vacation budget.

Most travelers know that dinner at Denny’s is going to cost far less than an evening meal at a four-star restaurant. But AAA also noted that many restaurants offer deals for seniors as young as 55, and in some places, children under the age of 12 eat free.

Surfing major restaurant chain sites online typically turns up coupons. Also, when you drive into an unfamiliar town, grab the local newspaper and see if any restaurants are offering deals in their ads. Don’t be afraid to ask the locals about discount dining.

The experts agree on lodgings: Do this planning well in advance, not on the road.

The good news is that decreased summer travel has pumped up the availability of discounted motel/hotel rooms on travel websites, including www.hotels.com. A scan of the site found hundreds of rooms available for $60 or less nationwide, some of them near resort areas.

Other sites go beyond lodgings. Travel-specific sites such as www.travelocity.com, www.orbitz.com, www.expedia.com, www.hotwire.com and www.priceline.com offer bargains on not only rooms, but air travel and rental cars. If your schedule is fluid, these sites feature deep discounts on air/hotel/rental car packages.

Be aware, however: Some travel sites include booking fees and nonrefundable deals. Look carefully at the fine print before clicking on the “purchase” button.

 

 

 

 

©2009, By Mark Glover, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).