Spring is Here, Summer Vacations Are Near: Tips for Planning and Saving

Vacation PlanningLadies and gentleman, it’s officially spring.  I know that’s technically been the case for quite a while now, as the Vernal Equinox (which marks the start of the season) fell on March 20 and Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow way back in February.  But it didn’t really feel like spring until recently (at least where I live in the Northeast).  After all, the Cherry Blossoms were late to bloom and it wasn’t until just yesterday that Adam Scott donned that iconic green jacket as Master’s champion.

For a lot of folks out there, Jim Nantz’s hushed commentary and the lush grounds at Augusta National Golf Club signal a clear end to scarves and snow days and the start of a long-anticipated countdown to shorts and summer vacations.  But regardless of what screams spring to you, summer will be here before we know it, so it’s probably wise to start planning potential trips soon.

Planning Season

After all, one-third of consumers took a leisure trip over Memorial Day weekend in 2012, according to a Deloitte survey, and 54% vacationed between June 1 and Labor Day.  That’s more than the 52% of people who took trips during the same period in 2011, and we can only expect that number to rise this year with the economic recovery pushing forward.

Planning a vacation sooner rather than later also gives you something to look forward to, enables better budgeting,  and offers more time to find the best possible deals on hotels and airfare.

Dr. Alan Fyal -UCF“Traditionally, vacation planning took place in the fall and early spring,” says Dr. Alan Fyall, visiting professor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.  “But with the volume of discounting and promotions now available many families are booking much later as they hold out for the better deals. This does not tend to be the case for long-haul international travel but for domestic activity – and especially cruising – this is becoming the norm.”

Dr. Bonnie Knutson, a professor in The School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University, basically echoed those sentiments by saying, “a summer cruise is usually booked 6-12 months in advance, ditto with other major destinations requiring a substantial expenditure. … Such trips as weekend getaways can have shorter lead times.”

Even if you don’t book in the short-term, you can’t really keep an eye out for cheap airfare or great package deals without first determining where you want to go and how much you want to spend.  I mean, you can try to look for value, but it won’t be as efficient and you might be inclined to opt for something out of your price range (either because you don’t really know what your price range is yet or you fall victim to sales appeal).

Besides, one of the best money-saving travel strategies requires a bit of time to develop.

Rewarding Vacations

Banks have in recent years taken to offering hundreds of dollars in “initial rewards bonuses” to new customers who sign up for the right card and spend a certain amount within the first few months.  They use these deals to attract people with above-average credit, who they can then cross-sell more profitable products.

You can use them to significantly subsidize summer fun.

For example, the average summer vacation cost $1,180 per person last year, according to a survey from American Express.  The following cards offer rewards bonuses that range in value from $400 to $800 (i.e. 34-68% off).

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card:  Offers 40,000 bonus points if you spend at least $3,000 during the first three months your account is open.  Those points are redeemable for $500 in travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards or a $400 statement credit.  There is no annual fee during the first year, but a $95 annual membership charge kicks in during the second year.
  • Club Carlson Premier Rewards Card:  Gives you 50,000 Gold Points after first purchase and 35,000 additional points if you spend at least $2,500 during the first 90 days.  Those points can be redeemed for 1-13 free hotel nights, depending on the category of hotel you select and the number of consecutive nights you book.  When you book at least two consecutive nights with rewards, the last night of your stay is free.  Radisson, Park Plaza, Park Inn, and Country Inn & Suites are among the hotel chains in the Club Carlson family.
  • Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus Credit CardOffers 50,000 bonus miles in return for spending at least $2,000 during the first three months.  Those miles are redeemable for up to $800 in “Wanna Get Away” fares.
  • Hilton HHonors Surpass Credit CardProvides 40,000 bonus points after your first purchase and another 20,000 after you spend $3,000.  You can redeem those points for 1-8 free nights, depending on the type of hotel you choose, which would seem well worth the $75 annual fee.

Those four cards offer the most lucrative initial rewards bonuses on the market (and we compared more than 1,000 different cards to make sure).  Which one you ultimately opt for depends on your destination of choice, how you plan to get there, and your lodging options.

In order to help you figure those things out, we checked-in with a few travel industry experts (including those already quoted) to see what’s hot in hospitality these days and where you can find the best value on summer travel.

Trends & Hot Spots:  Cruises, Road Trips & Lifestyle Attractions

Dr. Liping Cai - Purdue UniversityDr. Liping Cai, Associate Dean for the College of Health and Human Sciences at Purdue University and Director of the Purdue Tourism and Hospitality Research Center:  “The health trend will continue, with more nature-bound activities and cuisines. Rural tourism and agritourism destinations should see more visitors both international and domestic.”

Alan Fyall (UCF):  “Cruising continues to perform very well with excellent ‘value’ offers for families. Despite the price of gasoline, car-based tourism is also proving very robust as the cost and hassle of flying continues to irritate much of the market.

One of the interesting dimensions surfacing in many destinations is the focus on ‘wellbeing’ and overall ‘quality of life’ rather than the more predictable hedonistic fun appeal of many summer vacations. Hence, biking, hiking and running, outdoor sport and healthy eating are on the menus of destinations as diverse as Austin (Texas), Newport (Rhode Island), San Francisco (California) and Portland (Oregon)!”

Dr. Bonnie Knutson - MSUBonnie Knutson (MSU):  “River cruises are really hot with the older and higher socioeconomic demographic…why…because they’ve done the cruising thing and are looking for a new experience.  We are seeing more adventure travel, active travel, and even ‘do good’ travel where people go to areas on philanthropic journeys. This doesn’t mean that the beach scene is dead.”

Searching for Value:  Online Deals vs. Travel Agents

Cai:  “Our national parks and scenic byways remain to be the bargain. Small towns and villages in my home state of Indiana and other Midwest states offer the types of experiences that please the senses of vacationers that big cities and mega resorts can not compete.”

Fyall:  “With regard to booking, the Internet is awash with offers and choice with the price transparency of the mega-search sites beginning to shape peoples’ choice patterns. The pressure is very much on those marketing and managing destinations to ensure that visitors are making rational choices to visit their destinations rather than opting for the easiest best-value alternative.”

Knutson:  “To me, the greatest thing people can do to find value is talk with a qualified travel agent.  There is so much information on the Internet that people can get confused and start judging on price.  Price is different that Value.  Value is the Total Experience minus the Cost of getting that experience (cost is measured not only in dollars, but in time, and convenience too.)  A good travel agent will guide you and give you the best overall value for your needs/wants.”

Final Thoughts

It’s no secret the economic turmoil of the past few years hampered the tourism industry, leaving people with less discretionary income and ushering the term “staycation” into popular parlance.  Now that there’s light at the end of the fiscal tunnel, more folks are planning summer vacations than in years past.  But they’ve still got a bottom-line mindset.

“Consumer confidence is not as rosy as other leading economic indicators,” says Cai.  “More people may travel away from home for vacation, but they watch the wallets just as closely as last couple of years.”

So, as you start that process in the days and weeks to come, make sure to keep an eye on that bottom line.  Start by setting a budget and then look for packages that fit with both your interests and your finances.  Whether you opt to go on a cruise or a trip centered on hiking, biking, and camping – both of which are so hot right now, according to experts – don’t forget that you have a number of savings resources at your disposal.  Not only can you scour the Internet for deals and consult knowledgeable travel agents, but you can also save hundreds by simply using the right payment method.  That’s great news too, considering the way we’ve overspent in recent years.

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