Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vacation on a shoestring

First, you save; then you troll websites for best airfares, room prices

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'Be prepared' is the Boy Scouts credo, but it could just as easily apply to summer vacations.

But when it comes to a hitting the road, preparation involves more than ensuring the tent, the sleeping bag and the Swiss Army knife are actually packed in the camper. Cash -- lots of it -- is truly the king of the road if you're scheming an escape from the doggedly dreary days of summer workplace drudgery. After all, without some legal tender in your bank account, you might find yourself thumbing your way to a destination.

Then there's another credo to be concerned about: "Gas, grass or #*@. Nobody rides for free."

If you want to avoid such desperate measures, the sooner you plan for a summer holiday, the more likely you'll enjoy one that's as easy on your wallet as on your rat-race-tattered nerves.

A smart first step is a visit to your banker. Set up an automatic transfer for as much as you can financially stomach from your chequing account to a designated, no-fee savings account, says Shawnnette Fraser, manager of "customer experience" for TD Canada Trust.

"We all know the No. 1 tip to saving is to pay yourself first, so as soon as your paycheque is deposited, a certain amount goes into your savings account."

A few extra dollars -- maybe $50 -- each pay period can add up to a modest expense account for holidays.

For an August vacation, that's about $750. It's enough to help cover gas, camping and maybe even a tour or two.

Fraser says cutting discretionary spending in the weeks leading up to a vacation can also help pad a holiday fund. Fraser doesn't just preach this advice; she practises it.

"I put away a little bit every paycheque, and I have started cutting back on discretionary spending." She stopped going to the movie theatre -- "and I love going to movies."

Instead of dropping $50 or more on a family date at the cinema, she rents an on-demand movie for about $6 and pockets the difference for the holiday fund.

Travel blogger Corbin Fraser has an even more cost-effective idea: Go to the library and borrow a movie -- or just read a book instead.

Then take all that money normally reserved for the entertainment budget and defer its use until vacation time.

The 23-year-old graphic designer and award-winning travel blogger knows all about nickel-pinching tourism. The ex-Saskatchewan farm boy, now living by the sea in Halifax, is a master of travelling on the cheap in Canada. His blog -- ibackpackcanada.com -- offers the money-conscious trekker the lowdown on hostels and budget hotels across Canada, along with other cost-cutting tips.

He says hostels are often overlooked by Canadians travelling in their homeland. But private rooms at Hostelling International hostels -- sort of like the Best Western of hostels -- are far cheaper for a family in a major centre than a hotel. Six people in a private room costs less than $200 in Montreal. And if "stranger danger" isn't a worry, you can sleep in a dorm for less than $40 a night.

Hostels aren't just for the 20-something traveller either. "I've seen people in their 60s and 70s there from Sweden and Germany because they want to save money on accommodations."

After all, your accommodations are really just for sleeping.

"You're not going to be there all day, and if you are, what's the point of travelling?"

Those travellers who want less economy and a little more luxury in sleeping quarters can still find good deals on hotels, says Marc Peyser, editor with Budget Travel magazine.

"We like to say that we're all about finding vacations for real people," he says. "We don't believe in staying in horrible places, so we wouldn't suggest a one-star hotel. It's all about being a smart shopper."

Budget Travel headquarters is in Manhattan's Times Square, one of the most costly vacation spots on Earth. That said, Peyser knows a few wallet-fattening places to stay in the most costly of destinations.

"In New York, we tend to find places that are smaller -- inns and bed-and-breakfasts," he says. "If you came right now, we'd recommend an inn in Brooklyn, which has become a very popular place for people to visit and live."

The 3B Bed and Breakfast in Brooklyn is trendy, but more importantly, inexpensively trendy. You can get a private room with a queen-size bed for less than $150 a night in the middle of July. A bunk in a dorm will cost you less than $50.

Be it the Big Apple or any other tourist hot spot, it's best to plan ahead a few months, especially when booking flights. Just don't book too far in advance.

"Airlines change their fares based on their bookings, and six months out, they have no idea of what the bookings are going to be. But three months ahead, they start to see whether a flight will fill up or not, and then they start to play around with the prices."

And do try to book at least three weeks in advance. While you might find last-minute deals inside a couple of weeks, it's a gamble that only the most financially footloose and fancy-free can afford.

"There are last-minute deals that are really great, but they require flexibility," Peyser says. "I often thought if I had nothing better to do with my life that I would say, 'I'm going to go on vacation next week and whatever the best deal is, I'm just going to take that.'"

(Retired boomers, can you feel it?)

The day and time you book a flight can also save you money.

"Supposedly, the best time to look for airfares is midday Tuesday, because if airlines are going to drop a fare on, let's say Monday, the other airlines will be scrambling to match that fare, and by midday Tuesday, those sales are all available."

Overall, travelling on a budget has never been easier, mainly thanks to the wonders of the web. It simply makes bargain-finding a cinch. "Take hotels. It used to be you had to buy a guidebook and call hotels individually. Now you do that with one website to compare them all," Peyser says.

 

giganticsmile@gmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2012 A28

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