The Savvy Grown-Up's Guide to Spring Break on a Budget

A Thrift-Savvy Grown-up's Guide to Spring Break
College students aren't the only ones traveling in March. Non-student couples and families of all ages are also heading south for spring break. While these groups don't necessarily mingle well, they all have one thing in common; wanting to find the best deals on the best vacations available while escaping the winter blues.

Here's how to beat the crowds, and the higher prices they bring, to find the least expensive and most relaxing vacations this March.

Go Someplace Else

A poll by the travel website shows the top spring break destinations are Las Vegas, Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Puerto Vallarta. Student Universe identifies Panama City, Cancun, and San Jose among their top 10.

The trick to getting deals on air fare? Pick a less obvious destination.

There are any number of alternative spring break destinations where the Southern sun shines as brightly, but the prospects for cheap air fare and reasonably-priced accommodations aren't as dim. Seek out spots packed with museums, parks and kid-themed destinations that are close to, if not on, a beach, or just outside large spring break destinations. Don't overlook classic smaller cities like Charleston, Savannah or Galveston.

Go Farther

While domestic airfares spike during spring break season, international airfare drops, according to Sarah Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Kayak. The flight may be longer, but the cost is far less.
For non-collegiate couples or families looking for relaxing beach views not obscured with red-cup toting partiers, the Greek islands offers moderate climates and off-season rates, while Spain's economic troubles make finding hotel deals a snap. Or head to the Balkans -- rich in culture and thrifty in cost.

Savings Experiment: Spring Travel
Go Out to Sea

Because cruise ships sail whether they're full or not, savvy travelers who wait until the last minute to book can reap the rewards of rock-bottom prices. Cruisers who sail in off-season March will pay a fraction for the same trip as their summer-traveling counterparts.

Book a "family" cruise to avoid the collegiate crowd; search out itineraries low on parties and packed with kid-friendly activities. Prefer to spend more time on-ship than in a port of call? Check out off-season ship repositioning deals. While the starting and ending ports will differ, and the stops will be fewer, the on-board service and accommodations will be the same quality and the price will be right.

Go at an Off-Peak Time

Because breakers hoping to take advantage of every single minute of vacation travel weekend to weekend, flights and other fares mid-week will be lower. A five day vacation that leaves on Tuesday and returns on Saturday will be markedly less expensive than a Monday-Friday jaunt, or even a Sunday-Saturday trip. Off-hours flights, red-eyes, and flights with ugly layovers can offer substantial savings to travelers who are traveling light in companions and have time and flexibility to spare.

Go to College

If it sounds counter-intuitive consider this: College towns like Berkeley or Chapel Hill don't shut down when the students are away. Their cultural resources make many of them great places to vacation, and lines are considerably less at coffee shops, concert venues and museums when school is out of session. The colleges themselves frequently have exhibits open to the public and their websites are founts of information for visitors.

Don't Go ... Yet

If time permits and vacationing around school schedules isn't an issue, consider waiting out the spring break period and instead traveling in April. Early spring is still shoulder season for many destinations around the world and with careful planning, deals and lesser crowds can be found.

How to Outwit the Airlines
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The Savvy Grown-Up's Guide to Spring Break on a Budget

The shortest path between two points may be a straight line, but rarely does that seem to apply to airline routes. You might not be surprised by a layover in Chicago if you're flying from Boston to Seattle, but rarely will you find so obvious a route, especially on discounted and last-minute tickets.

Flying from New York to Dallas? JetBlue (JBLU) will make you lay over in Boston. Taking a short hop across the Adriatic Sea from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Venice, Italy on Iberia? Expect to lay over in Barcelona, Spain. That's because most airlines have hubs that they operate many more flights through, which make them cheaper. For example, American Airlines (AAL) has its largest hub in Dallas-Fort Worth, while United Continental (UAL) now has its largest hub in Houston (United's top hub was Chicago O'Hare before the merger).

If the 2005 Wes Craven thriller Red Eye has led you to pass on booking overnight flights, you might be missing out on some bargains.

A round-trip flight on British Airways from New York City to London on an afternoon in early July can cost approximately $1,500. An evening flight (after 6 p.m., although it varies by airline), however, can cost less than $1,000. And it's not just the transatlantic route. Red-eye flights are traditionally less expensive, not as full, and offer shorter lines at check-in and through security. And after all, time is money.

Travel newsletters like Johnny Jet, websites like Airfare Watchdog, or airline-specific social media feeds often provide flash and last-minute deals. Some sites, like Kayak, will automatically prompt you to set up an alert for a particular destination once you've done a couple of searches with the same departure and destination locations.

While many blogs and websites theorize on the best time or day to buy an airfare, there is no magic formula. Only by regularly comparing fares against other dates and airlines will you know when to make your purchase.

A good indicator of how easy an airline is to fly is its policies on changes and cancellations. While the policies are as varied as the quality of the in-flight meals, the information is easier to quantify. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics publishes an annual list of fees generated by each airline. In 2011, Delta (DAL) charged a whopping $766 million in change and cancellation fees. Alaska Airlines (ALK) charged a mere $10 million (And lest you attribute the big difference to the relative sizes of the carriers, Delta only carried nine times as many passengers as Alaska Airlines.)

While the cost of flying may be increasing, airfare deals can always be had with a little patience, persistence, and research. Whether you're traveling alone, with colleagues, or with your family, you can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars on your flights this summer. Maybe even enough for another trip.

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