MISSION: MONEY AND TIME-SAVERS

Get the best travel deals this season!

Whether you're traveling by plane, train, bus or car, if you know these insider tips and experts-only secrets, you can virtually guarantee you and your family a comfortable, money and time-saving trip this holiday!

We’ve asked the experts to reveal the secrets they use to get the most for their time and money anywhere your family might go this season:

GETTING THERE . . .

This holiday season, however you choose to travel, there are deep discounts to be had, says Los Angeles-based travel expert Peter Greenberg, author of The Travel Detective. “Usually, prices soar during the holiday season, but with fewer bookings this year because of the current situation, the travel industry is offering some great deals to attract customers.” Here’s the best way to take advantage of them—and ensure a comfortable trip, as well….

ON A TRAIN

1. Skip the travel agency. Why? “Because most travel agents are geared toward airplanes, not trains, and many don’t have easy computer connections to schedules,” says Greenberg. Instead, he suggests, book your travel itinerary directly with Amtrak either on-line (Amtrak.com) or using their toll-free number (800-USA-RAIL).

2. Get them to ‘fess up about special fares. Unlike airlines, “Amtrak almost always has some kind of sale or special discount going on,” reveals Carol Kaminski of BestFares.com. There are lower fares for seniors, students, teenagers, children, even veterans, as well as ongoing promotions and special packages that can save you as much as 70%. The catch: you have to either know about them, or know enough to ask, she says—otherwise, you won’t be offered them. Your best bet: log onto Amtrak.com to find special deals, then call 800-USA-RAIL and ask the operator about any others, she advises.

3. Use the train to snap up discounts on hotels and rental cars. How? By taking advantage of frequent “train miles” programs! Just like with frequent flier miles, you can quickly rack up points every time you and your family travel by rail. The best part? Unlike with restrictive airline miles, “you can use your points to get cheaper rates on hotel rooms, rental cars, to buy gift certificates at popular restaurants and stores—they can even be transferred to airline miles,” reveals Amtrak spokesperson Karen Dunn. Just ask the operator when you call about guest rewards or log onto AmtrakGuestRewards.com.

4. Factor in an extra hour to your trip—no matter what the train itinerary says. It’s a little-known secret that “passenger train companies like Amtrak don't own the rails they ride on—freight train companies do,” reveals Greenberg. “As a result, when a freight train comes down the track—which happens more often than not—your train may be forced to sit on a side track and wait for it to pass.” But if you plan for this delay ahead of time, it won’t make you late.

ON A BUS

1. Avoid the crowds. Most people don’t realize it, but you can purchase your bus tickets in advance, either online or by calling the bus company directly, says Peter Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association. “That way, you can skip the crowds at the ticket counter, arrive right before your bus leaves, and hop right on!” Won’t the good seats all be gone by then? No! “Unlike airlines and trains, which have a limited number of seats, buses can take a virtually unlimited number of passengers, he reveals. “When one bus fills up, officials simply call in a second one to carry the rest!”

2. Travel at the best time of day. Surveys show that the majority of bus trips last about six hours. “So if you purchase tickets for a bus that boards around 10am, you’ll miss rush hour on both ends of your trip and stand a much better chance of arriving on time,” says Greenberg.

3. Take advantage of bus “passes”. If you and your family are making several visits this season—first to Grandma’s, then your in-laws, and then to your best friend—a special bus pass that offers unlimited destinations could be just the ticket. This discount pass, offered by most major bus companies, is available year round and allows you to take as many buses to as many destinations as you like for the duration of the ticket, says Kristin Parsley, a spokeswoman for Greyhound Bus. It can save you a bundle over buying each ticket individually. Passes range from 4 to 60 days, and start at just $135.

4. Virtually guarantee an empty seat next to you. How? By choosing a seat near the front of the bus because experts say that’s where the most seats stay empty. “Sit toward the front and the people getting on after you will most likely pass you by as they search for empty seat pairs further back,” says Parsley.

ON AN AIRPLANE

1. Book your flight during the magic hour: between midnight and 1 am every Wednesday night. “That's when airlines make thousands of cheap seats available—seats  that had been reserved by other customers who haven’t paid for them,” reveals travel expert Valerie D'Elia. “Simply call your airline or go online during this time, and you’ll automatically be offered bargains you might not get at any other time.” But don’t forget: midnight means midnight in the city where the airline is based. For instance, since Delta is based in Atlanta, its unsold seats go back into inventory at midnight Eastern standard time. (To find out where the airline you want is based, call their 800 number ahead of time to ask.)

2. Pack the right carry-on items. “First and foremost, bring a sack lunch or dinner and plenty of snacks, especially if you’re traveling with kids,” says Greenberg—because most airlines have discontinued food service to save money. But avoid the newest security no-no: liquids. Pack juicy fruit or veggies—like apples, pears, watermelon squares or cucumbers—whose high water content will help quench thirst and keep you and your family hydrated.

ONCE YOU ARRIVE . . .

Surveys show the average hotel stay and car rental lasts more than four days. “That can add up to a lot of money—or a lot of discomfort—if you’re not happy,” says Greenberg.

AT THE CAR RENTAL AGENCY

1. Virtually guarantee a free upgrade. The secret: book the smallest, cheapest car possible, reveals D'Elia. “On weekends and during the holidays, car rental agencies always take more bookings than they can fill for small cars. So more often than not, once you actually get there, most of the small cars have been sold out. As a result, you’ll likely  be given an upgrade for no additional fee.”

2. Don’t get taken for a ride. Guess what: that super-low rate you relied on when you booked your car rental probably won’t be the rate you actually pay. In a startling study from the National Association of Attorneys General, investigators found that many car rental agencies sock consumers with so many hidden surcharges and fees, the final cost often exceeds the advertised rate by as much 75%. Even worse, the bill isn’t totaled up until you’re done using the car—so you’re forced to pay instead of being given the option to say, “No thanks!” How can you make sure you’re not surprised by a sneaky price hike? “Simply ask for a list of all the extra charges, taxes and fees when you call to book the car,” advises Greenberg. “If they add up to more than you want to pay, go elsewhere.”

IN A HOTEL 

1. Get the lowest price there is. “Even though today’s hotel rooms are cheaper, don’t take the first rate you’re offered, thinking it’s automatically a great deal,” cautions Greenberg—because there are still even-better bargains to be had. These tips show you how to get them:

Ask the magic question: “Is there a lower price available?” That’s right, says Greenberg. Often, a better price can be had just for the asking. That’s because, when the hotel isn’t full, the advertised rate dips significantly. The catch: Unless you ask, you won’t be told about the drop!

Book your room at the cheapest time: 4 p.m. on a Sunday. “That's when the ‘revenue management’ department—the people who set the sliding rates for hotel rooms—are off, so you stand a much better chance of speaking with a front-desk clerk who would prefer to simply sell a room at a much cheaper rate than keep it empty and not make any money,” Greenberg discloses.

2. Don’t give the desk clerk your primary credit or debit card. It’s a little-known fact: When the desk clerk swipes your card as you check in, he doesn't punch in the price of your room. Instead, the law allows him to charge you an arbitrary amount (anywhere from $200 to $3000!) to cover expenses you might incur while you’re there. Sure, you get most of the money back when you check out—but if you need it during your trip for souvenirs or dinners out, it might not be there. The simple way to avoid this trap: Be sure to give the hotel clerk either an American Express card (which has no limit) or a card you’re using only for the hotel bill, advises Greenberg.

3. Book a more comfortable room—for the same price. When cardholders were asked in a recent American Express survey what they considered the most important factor for a comfortable hotel stay, most gave a startling answer: not a firm bed, crisp sheets or the perfect amount of heat—but great water pressure in the bathroom. If that’s how you feel, too, there’s an easy way to guarantee your comfort. “When you book a room, simply ask the desk clerk which floors have ‘booster pumps’,” advises Greenberg. “These bring water from the ground up to the higher floors—and when you’re on the same floor as one, the shower pressure is like a fire hose.” (If the desk clerk doesn’t know, ask him to check with the hotel’s engineer to find out.)

4. Guarantee a childproof room. New studies show that today, 85% of vacationers and 60% of business travelers bring their children along on their trip—which is why more and more hotels are offering a little-known service: free child-proofing. “Simply call ahead and ask to have housekeeping kid-proof your room before you get there,” Greenberg suggests. “You’ll automatically be provided with safety measures like covers over electrical outlets and life-saving screens on balcony bars.”


  

 

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