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Online reservations and flights to almost any destination have made travel easy, but easy doesn't necessarily mean cheap. Just staying in a hotel for a week in high season can take a chunk out of your budget -- and then there's food, transport, admission fees, and everything else that turns a trip into a vacation. It's enough to make the backyard seem like an attractive holiday destination.
The good news is that some of the most rewarding experiences remain affordable. In other words, it's still possible to travel well on a budget.
Michele Perry, a spokeswoman for the travel Web site TripAdvisor, says a good starting point is to get advice from other travelers. If they've been to the places you want to go, chances are they will be as happy to tell you about that perfect out-of-the-way bistro as they will about the cost-cutting 12-hour bus ride. (In hindsight, the bus ride probably makes for a better story.)
So to keep our readers tanned, relaxed, cultured, and solvent, this Five for the Money offers some vacation-planning tips.
1. Don't be in such a hurry.
Pauline Kenny runs slowtrav.com, a site that helps people find short-term vacation rentals. The idea is to spend your time growing familiar with a single place, instead of hotel-hopping among various locales. Kenny says the name was inspired by the Slow Food movement, popular in Italy, which emphasizes regional ingredients and traditional preparation. Getting your own place is a way to "learn more about the community," she says. "You're not just in a tourist area."
It's also a way to save money. Buying food in grocery stores costs less than eating every meal in a restaurant. And many a foodie can pass a morning hunting for local ingredients in farmers' markets. No matter your budget, rentals are often cheaper than hotel rooms, and you can save further by sharing a space with friends.
This sort of travel seems especially well suited to Europe -- slowtrav.com focuses on Italy -- but it's not limited to that continent. Kenny spoke to BusinessWeek from Hawaii, where she was enjoying a rented cottage. "It's like picking up your whole life and moving it for a little while," she says. "It makes for a very different trip."
2. Keep a close eye on exchange rates.
Fluctuating currency-exchange rates can give savvy travelers a chance to pocket a few extra dollars -- or at least save them for souvenirs. At the moment, the dollar is relatively strong against the euro, the Japanese yen, and the Australian dollar. On the flip side, the U.S. dollar has lost ground against the currencies of Canada, South Africa, and Brazil, good news for visitors from those countries who want to check out America.
While this strategy offers the potential to save some money, it can be tricky. If you plan a vacation around favorable rates, the advantage might dissolve before you actually take your trip. Book rooms or tours in advance, and the rates might slant further in your direction as the dates near. Still, if you time it right, you might be able to save some coin. In extreme cases, an especially favorable exchange rate attracts travelers with promises of high living.
3. Seek alternative accommodations.
Some find sleeping in a tent to be a headache -- not to mention a backache -- but it can save you big. In some destinations, it might even be preferable to a stuffy room. Take the Florida Keys, where freezing to death is not a concern. Boyd's Key West Campground advertises in-season rates for waterfront tent spots for $70 per day. Rooms with a view of the Gulf can easily go for double that.
Not everyone enjoys waking up outdoors, but destinations worldwide offer atmospheric surroundings at bargain, or at least reasonable, prices. In London, where accommodations can be some of the most expensive anywhere, the London Bed & Breakfast Agency connects visitors to rooms in private homes around the city, with prices starting at around $50 per person per night.
Japan has a lesser-known equivalent of the B&B, called the Minshuku. Don George, Lonely Planet's global travel editor, says they're "more intimate and welcoming" than the country's more formal hotels. Indeed, he says staying in small places is one of his travel guidelines for just about anywhere. "The smaller the place, the more likely it is to offer you a closer interaction with the people," he says.
4. Spread your money around.
Let's face it, splurging is a part of travel. Vacations are an ideal time to sample a world-class meal or luxuriate in a suite. And it's no fun spending a week pinching pennies. To accommodate the spending urge, Paul Eisenberg, editorial director at Fodor's Travel Publications, says travelers should spread their resources among the facets of their vacation.
"Treating yourself in one category and denying yourself the rest really limits the experience," he says. Instead of spending a whole week in a deluxe hotel, spend a night or two there, then make a run on the shops or grab some theater tickets.
In addition to not demolishing your savings on one hotel, there are ways to save money without sacrificing luxury. Eisenberg suggests visiting fancy restaurants for lunch instead of dinner. Also, hotels and airlines are more likely to upgrade you if it's a birthday, honeymoon, or another special occasion, he says. It never hurts to ask.
5. Take a tour.
Some haughty adventure travelers dismiss organized tours for insulating visitors from their destinations. Maybe so, but traveling in a group is a good way to save a bundle. Professional tour operators can offer bargain trips to pretty much anywhere -- often for less than you'll find online.
If viewing the world from the confines of an air-conditioned coach is too sedentary, you have options. Tours cater to a galaxy of interests. Want to devote a week in France to walking, cycling, eating, or drinking? There are plenty of outfits able to accommodate you. Tour groups aren't for everyone, but smirk at your own peril. The good ones might know where you want to go, and how to get there, better than you do.
Nonetheless, Eisenberg is a bit more cautious about travel packages. "A tour's only a good bargain if that's how you like to travel," he says.