Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer, Feb 9, 2014
Without a break in the freezing weather on the horizon, I finally snapped and started searching for a cheap airfare to where the sun was shining. It’s possible to have a budget trip and get a tan during the winter, but it takes some careful planning, flexibility in your travel dates and a willingness to spend some time on the Internet. Here’s a primer to sun in the fun on the cheap.
First, unless you have a free place to stay, plan your destination around the cheapest flights. I usually start with websites such as Orbitz or Expedia, so I can see where the lowest cost flights are going. If you can travel on Wednesday, the fares are usually lower.
In this latest case of cabin fever, my husband already had a trip to Sarasota, so I started looking at flights and couldn’t find one less than $400. I widened my search to Tampa, and bingo—Spirit Airlines was offering a flight for $116 (round trip). By the time I added the cost of taking a suitcase and paying for my seat (Spirit charges extra for everything except the air you breathe), the fare was about $200, still half what other airlines wanted for a flight to the same part of the country.
It was a nonstop flight (a huge plus), on what must have been the most tightly packed plane I have ever seen (a huge minus). Thank goodness the seats didn’t recline, because my neighbor was already 10 inches from my face. I just kept thinking about the sunshine in my future.
My next stop was to start looking for hotels. I usually start with TripAdvisor. While the site has gotten much more commercial since it started in 2000, it is the best place I know to get a sense of what hotels are available and what guests say about them. I especially like the feature that tells you what room to request. Just like flights, make sure you check a few nearby cities. Sometimes it really pays to rent a car and drive a few extra miles to get a better hotel deal. I recently found a $15 a day car rental rate. Yahoo.
Airlines will try to book hotels and cars for you but I have found you can get a better rate on both by going directly to their websites. If you really feel lucky, try naming your price for your rental car and your hotel room on Priceline.com. I’ve gotten some amazing deals on both, but be careful—one time I ended up flying through Newark in the opposite direction to where I was headed.
Having a rental car pays off by giving you more options of where to stay and where to eat. If you plan to stay within walking distance of the sand and live off the coffee pot and out of the mini-fridge, then skip the rental car. Otherwise, having a car gets you to the best local places to eat.
Once you have your flights, hotel and rental car, you have one more research task — finding some great places to eat. I make sure my hotel room has a mini-fridge, so I can store breakfast food and some lunch supplies. For meals out, I start a web search with the name of the city and the phrase “budget meals.”
Local city magazines often run annual lists of reasonable places to eat, and those sources have yet to fail me. Asking at the front desk of the hotel can also yield some good suggestions (once they stop convincing you to try their restaurant). Another tip is to eat lunch out rather than dinner and look for early bird specials or happy hours with heavy appetizers.
I wish you good luck bargain travel hunting and happy hours in the sun.