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 five money-saving tips help jump-start your travel planning for the new year:
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.
Example: 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.
Learn the work-arounds
Here's one that's important to Delta Skymiles members who might want to fly on Alaska Airlines, a Delta milage partner, but also a competitor. Delta no longer shows Alaska lights on Delta.com, a move intended to steer customers onto Delta flights exclusively.
Two problems with this: Alaska's flights are sometimes more convenient. It flies non-stop to Tucson, for instance, while Delta makes connections through Salt Lake City or Los Angeles.
Secondly, if you're a member of Delta's Skymiles frequent flyer program, and you can no longer buy a ticket on Delta's website for an Alaska Air flight, it makes it harder to rack up important Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) needed to qualify for elite status.
As of this year, Delta began requiring Skymiles members to spend a minimum of $2,500 with Delta as well as rack up at least 25,000 miles to earn silver elite status in 2015. For 2016, it raised the ante to $3,000 in spending.
Now here's the trick: Flying on a partner airline counts, as long as you purchase the ticket from Delta, now impossible to do on Delta.com for most Alaska Air flights.
So what should you do? Book the old-fashioned way - on the phone. I did this recently with the flight to Tucson. The Delta agent agreed to book me on the Alaska flight, waive the usual telephone charges, and let me use by credit card to pay Delta directly, so the purchase would count towards my MQDs.
I'm not sure how long this work, but it's worth a try next time you want to book an Alaska flight, but purchase the fare through Delta.
And remember, if the amount of Delta MQDs showing up on your statement is less than you paid for your ticket, there's a reason. Taxes and fees don't count in the total. For instance, on a $196.20 round-trip fare between Seattle and Los Angeles, you'll be credited for only $156.28 worth of MQDs, the total amount you paid, minus $39.92 in taxes and fees.
Widen your search to find the best fares
Although 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 an airline's website than I did using the link from Kayak.
An 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.
Choose your airport carefully
Fares can vary depending on which airport you use, especially when it comes to international flights. Flying out of Seattle to Hong Kong, London and Paris, for instance, is much more expensive than flying out of Canada's Vancouver Internatonal Airport 140 miles north. Yes, you have to get there to snag the bargains, but it's just a 2.5 hour drive. Long-term parking is cheap, and buses and trains link the two cities.
Is it worth it? I'd say it is after checking a sampling of round-trip fares between Seattle vs. Vancouver for mid-November travel.
*Hong Kong: Delta's lowest round-trip Seattle/Hong Kong fare was $1,037 vs. $827 out of Vancouver. China Eastern offered the lowest fare out of Vancouver- $770 - vs. $830 on Asiana out of Seattle.
*Paris: Delta showed a low round-trip fare of $1,337 between Seattle and Paris vs. $883 out of Vancouver. My search showed Air Canada offering the lowest fare out of Seattle - $1,103 - vs. a low fare of $717 on British Airways out of Vancouver.
*London: Delta's lowest Seattle/London round-trip was $1,206 vs. $724 out of Vancouver. Lufthansa offered the lowest fare out of Seattle - $1,143 - vs. $722 out of Vancouver on British.
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.
My pal Joe Brancatelli, publisher of JoeSentMe.com, a newsletter aimed at business travelers, has other excellent suggestions in his latest Seat 2B column. His advice: Stop buying the stuff you already get free.