Tips to jump-start a year of wise travel

Victoria, B.C.: A bargain destination in the off-season

The best way to find good value when it comes to travel is to become a smarter traveler. So-called "deals'' come and go, or never were really there in the first place. A little inside knowledge, on the other hand, can pay off no matter what the season or destination. 

I learn something new each time I book a trip. Here's a few tips to help jump-start your travel plans for 2014:

 *Reserve a rental car once you know your dates, but recheck prices closer to the time of travel. Prices can drop last- minute, depending on the actual availability of cars vs. what the companies anticipate.  

I booked an 11-day rental through Enterprise on the Big Island of Hawaii last fall for $356. Rechecking a few days before I was about to leave, I noticed the rate dropped to $219. I cancelled and rebooked, easy to do since I hadn't pre-paid, hardly ever a good idea given the chances of prices falling.

 *Watch for hidden fees.  We all expect fees. It's the hidden ones that annoy me.  I'm a fan of bidding on Priceline for great hotel rates in cities such as Vancouver, San Francisco and Portland, but I don't use it or any other third-party sites for buying airline tickets. 

Rarely will you find a better price than the airline offers on its own website, and if you have to make a change, you can get stuck with extra charges. Priceline tacks on a $30 "ticket service fee'' for changes on top of the airlines' change fees. Travelocity adds another $40. 

*Search more than one place to find the best air faresAlthough I buy my tickets directly from the airlines, I shop around first on Kayak.com, a "meta-search'' site which doesn't sell tickets, but rather scans multiple airlines for the lowest fares, then links buyers to airline websites for purchases.

Kayak's searches are generally reliable, but there have been instances where I've found a better fare for the same flights and times on the airline's website without than I did using the link from Kayak. 

The most recent example was a complicated itinerary involving travel to Fort Lauderdale, Florida with a stopover, then an onward flight to  Bogota, Colombia and return to Seattle. 
Kayak linked me to a Delta itinerary priced at $838 vs. $736 when I went directly onto Delta's site for the same flights and times. 

The difference was the result of a slightly cheaper set of fare class codes - "buckets'' of different fares airlines offer on the same flights - that Kayak failed to capture.  

*Explore favorite destinations off-season. Late fall, winter and early spring are ideal times for visiting most of the European capitals as well as Portland, Vancouver, Victoria B.C. and the San Juan Islands. 

Plan your getaway as if it's the first time you've ever visited. My husband and I based ourselves at a B&B in Richmond instead of downtown on our last trip to Vancouver B.C., and felt as if we'd taken a side trip to Hong Hong. We biked along the dykes, and sampled Asian street snacks at the Richmond Night Market.  

*Use public transportation. Avoid driving and parking hassles by trying out Greyhound's BoltBus, a comfortable and efficient way to get between Seattle and Portland or Vancouver, B.C. Take advantage of special offers on Amtrak, and look into day passes for riding city buses. One of the best deals I've come across is a $5 all-day bus pass for traveling around Victoria, B.C., including a bus that goes to and from Butchart Gardens.

 * Try out alternative lodging sites such as  Airbnb.com, Couchsurfing.org or the Affordable Travel Club, a Gig Harbor-based hospitality exchange club for travelers over 40, and make your trip  about the people as well as the places.  

Happy travels!

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