You may be thinking about making your 2020 vacation plans right about now. Before you do, however, read below what I heard from four experts at last week’s New York Times Travel Show. During their sessions, they shared savvy advice on how to save money and time when you travel this year; how to travel more sustainably and the best places to go on vacation.
How to Save on Airfare, Hotels, Tours and Currency
Getting the best deals on flights and lodging is getting harder; blame it on AI.
As Julie Weed just wrote in The New York Times, travel providers are increasingly using artificial intelligence software (known as hyperdynamic pricing) to change their prices at dizzying rates. Her story noted research from the airfare prediction app Hopper showing the average price of a domestic flight now changes 17 times in two days.
So, what’s a traveler to do?
Pauline Frommer, co-president of Frommer Media and editorial director of Frommer’s Guidebooks, said at the Times Show that Frommer’s recent study of the best airfare search engines, aggregators and booking engines turned up a new winner for 2020: the aggregator Skiplagged.com.
“It consistently found the lowest fares,” she said. But, Frommer added, “it does so normally, and in a way I don’t approve of.”
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The Skiplagged method Frommer eschews: hidden-city airfares, sometimes called skiplagging. That’s the gambit where you, say, plan to fly from New York City to Milwaukee but plan to save money by taking a flight to Chicago with a stop in Milwaukee and hopping off. Some airlines have taken action against skiplagging fliers. To use Skiplagged and get airfare deals the way Frommer prefers, “you need to uncheck the Hidden City option,” she said.
Matt Kepnes, aka “Nomadic Matt,” had three other online recommendations to search for flight deals: Momondo.com, Google Flights and Scott’s Cheap Flights. “Scott’s sends an email about flights from my local airport every day,” said Kepnes, who’s based in Austin. “A few years ago, I went to South Africa for $600 roundtrip.”
The travel gurus disagreed about whether there was a best time to book flights for the lowest fares. But Frommer offered this tip: “Don’t book too far in advance — four, five or six months before you’ll fly. If you do, the airlines know they’ve got you.” And that means they’ll charge you more than you need to pay.
For the lowest hotel rates, another Frommer study came up with another new winner. “Last time, we said Booking.com was the top hotel site,” Frommer said. “But no longer. This time, HotelsCombined.com found the best prices most consistently.” And if you find a cheaper rate after you’ve booked with a site listed there, HotelsCombined — an aggregator — will refund the difference.
Frommer also recommended Kayak.com and Booking.com for hotel deals. (Kepnes is a Booking.com fan, too, and suggests HotelTonight if you’re looking for a last-minute room. He used HotelTonight for his New York Travel Show visit, got a Courtyard room for $100 a night “and it was not a dump,” he added.)
But “you may want to book your hotel directly with the hotel,” she added. “Major hotel chains have made a promise that if you book directly through their loyalty programs, they will match and undercut any rate out there. And it’s a promise they are keeping.”
If you’re considering staying at a home rental, Frommer advised checking out Airbnb, Homeaway, Flipkey or Vrbo (it stands for Vacation Rentals by Owners) — with a caveat. “The deals aren’t as good as they used to be because of the fees they are charging,” she said. “I was looking for a place in Zanzibar and the cleaning fee doubled the cost of the night. This is happening more and more.”
Kepnes is a fan of hostels to save money on lodging.
“My mother thinks I’m crazy to stay in one,” says the 38-year-old travel expert. “When people went backpacking around the world in the ‘70s, hostels were dirty, smelly cheap places to stay. Nowadays, they are really nice. Some have private bathrooms and bars and restaurants.”
What’s more, Kepnes said, you get to meet interesting people staying at the hostel and get smart, local tips from the employees. “The hostel staff is focused on budget travelers, so they tend to know what’s going on that’s cheaper or free in the city and where to eat that someone working at the W hotel might not know,” said Kepnes.
To find free opportunities when visiting a city, Kepnes said, “search ‘free things to do in x’ and you will definitely find them. He’s especially keen on free walking tours to get the lay of the land and ask questions of local guides. “Most major cities have them,” he added.
Check, too, to see if museums or galleries offer free visits during dates and times, said Kepnes.
If you’ll need to exchange dollars for local currency when traveling abroad, Angel Castellanos, aka The Travel Ambassador, and Kepnes urged avoiding airport foreign-currency cash machines.
“They pay terrible exchange rates or charge high fees,” Castellanos said. “And the worst place to get cash is at an airport currency counter.” Instead, he advised, “if you desperately need local cash, go to Customs and get on the other side of Security to find the proper bank-owned machines.”
Travel insurance? Frommer recommended always buying it for big-ticket travel like a safari or a cruise, but not for just a hotel room or a flight. Frommer’s favors purchasing a policy through an insurance market site like Squaremouth.com or Insuremytrip.com or Travelinsurance.com.
“Never buy travel insurance from your travel provider,” Frommer said. “If they go out of business, you’ve lost your insurance, too.”
Kepnes noted that although high-end credit cards offer customers travel insurance, “that only covers what you purchased on their cards and they don’t have high coverage limits.”
How to Save Time When You Travel
Castellanos had a few wise words about saving time when you travel, too. “I think of travel as an exercise in time management,” he said.
When traveling abroad, Castellanos advised, get the U.S. Customs’ Mobile Passport app. “You answer the five [inspection] questions you’re supposed to answer when you’re returning to the U.S. and then you get a QR code [a barcode] on your phone,” said Castellanos. “When I touch down, I immediately make a beeline for the Mobile Passport line. Typically, I find no people in it.”
You can use Mobile Passport at 27 U.S. airports and cruise ports. The app is free but there’s also a $14.99/year paid version — Mobile Passport Plus — that stores your passport information into the app.
Castellanos also recommends saving time by buying a city sightseeing pass to bypass lines at museums and other local attractions. “Go to the tourist information office or ask your hotel for a sightseeing pass,” he said. “Some of the passes bundle sites to save you some cash. But more importantly, they can save you some time.”
You might also buy The Sightseeing Pass for one of 16 cities around the world, including Washington, D.C., San Francisco and London.
How to Travel More Sustainably
Traveling sustainably was a big topic at this year’s New York Times Travel Show. That’s not surprising, given the growing “flight shaming” movement leading more travelers to find ways to offset their carbon footprint on vacation.
Seth Kugel, the former Frugal Traveler columnist for the Times and author of Rediscovering Travel: A Guide to the Globally Curious, gave an entire lecture on how to be a sustainable traveler.
Kugel’s definition of sustainable travel: causing a positive, or the least possible negative impact, on the earth and on a local destination’s physical environment, society, culture and economy.
Flying is the least sustainable way to travel, since planes burn so much fuel, especially reaching altitude and descending. That’s why Kugel advised against taking short flights. Instead, he said, hop on a bus. “Sometimes, buses these days are pretty comfortable,” Kugel added. (During Frommer’s talk, she noted that the Kayak travel search engine can now tell you when you can take a train or a bus instead of a plane, to lessen your carbon footprint.)
Kugel also urged fliers to pack lighter. “If you put less luggage on a plane, that means the airlines save on fuel and you’ll save on baggage fees,” he said.
Before renting a car for a trip, Kugel said, call in advance the agency where you’ll pick up the car to specifically reserve a compact or subcompact.
Where to Go on Vacation in 2020
Finally, if you’re looking for ideas about where to travel in 2020, Frommer had a few recommendations here and abroad — some will likely surprise you. They came from her contributors’ Frommer’s “Best Places to Go in 2020” list:
The Bahamas “We chose this because a lot of people wrongly think the Bahamas is not open for business” due to Hurricane Dorian in 2019, said Frommer. While Dorian was perhaps the worst hurricane in history, only 30% of the 700 Bahamas islands were hit, Frommer said. “This is a nation that really depends on tourism and prices are plummeting there.” (Abacos and Grand Bahama still need time to rebuild, Frommer’s reports.)
Emilia-Romagna Italy Never heard of it? If you’re a foodie, you may want to make plans for a visit to Italy’s breadbasket, north of Florence. “Everybody wants to eat well and see where food is produced and you cannot go to a better place for it than Emilia-Romagna, Italy,” said Frommer. The area — which includes Bologna, Parma and Modena — is known for salumi, cheeses, handmade pastas, meat sauces and balsamic vinegar. There’s even a pork museum.
The Poles “Sadly, this is a climate change-related suggestion,” said Frommer. Warming oceans have made some itineraries to Antarctica and the Arctic possible. “You want to see this part of the world before it changes forever,” Frommer added. “It’s very expensive, but we think it’s worth it.” Cruises to Antarctica can cost $6,000 to $25,000, excluding airfare, the Frommer’s site notes.
Indiana “America’s newest national park is the Indiana Dunes National Park, off one of the Great Lakes,” said Frommer. “And Indianapolis is a cool city that’s having its two-hundredth anniversary this year. It has fabulous museums.”