Luxury travel usually means spending a lot. But not always. Here are some proven outside-the-box ways to get upscale vacations for much less.
Choose Emerging over Established Destinations
Don't Follow the Pack
It's very hard to economize in a super-expensive, traditional destination. So my advice is: to save money, don't go there.
Think different. Go to a place that delivers a lot of what you love about your fantasy destination, but at real-life tabs. Here are some ideas.
Budget-buster French city: Paris, the City of Light -- and heavy spending
Budget-stretcher French city: Quebec City, Canada's 400-year-old walled fortress town that feels and sounds more French than Paree
Trendy, pricey Latin American: San Miguel de Allende, an artsy Colonial town in Mexico, with several luxury hotels
Emerging and exciting Latino: Nicaragua, with pristine beaches, volcanic beaches, lakes, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the new, five-star Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa Resort
Pricey Spanish-speaking pick: Barcelona, home of culinary and architectural innovation
Amazing alternative: Buenos Aires, home of tango, polo, and parillada-grilled steak with Malbec wine
Stratospheric European country vacation: Tuscany, cradle of a thousand exquisite villas and best-selling memoirs
Atmospheric alternative: Istria in Croatia, called "the new Tuscany" for its Roman history, cozy villages, pasta and wine (and as a bonus: Adriatic beaches)
In a Posh Destination, Stay Outside the Tourist Center
Don't Roost in the Center of Town
OK, so you have your heart set on a Big Apple visit. Here, even a four-star hotel will cost several hundred dollars a night.
But in myriad vacation magnets like NYC, good hotels have proliferated outside the tourism hubs. If you're willing to spend a few minutes on a subway or bus, you can save a bundle on your hotel bills.
You won't be staying in a deluxe legend like The Pierre New York, but you might find a perfectly cute, cool design hotel. Some examples:
In New York, Z NYC Hotel is located in Long Island City, a newly gentrified neighborhood that is one subway stop from midtown, and the hotel offers a free shuttle service. Rooms are slick Art Deco black-and-white, all with Manhattan skyline views.
San Francisco: Oakland is attracting travelers who can't deal with SFO hotel rates. Waterfront Hotel on Jack London Square delivers mesmerizing bay views, and there's a shuttle to the BART station.
Venice the wallet menace: Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square) is the high-ticket tourism and hotel hub of Venice. If you stay a half-hour stroll away in the authentic and residential Santa Croce district, you'll save around €200 per night at MGallery Hotel Papadopoli.
As Sweet as a Suite Is, Go for a Hotel's Basic Room
You Won't Be in Your Room that Much, Right?
If you're planning a luxury hotel stay mainly to lounge and laze in your cushy room, then it won't really work for you to skimp on your room category.
But if you're planning to spend most of your vacation time outside your room, you can save big with a "run-of-house" basic room. And you'll still get the hotel's five-star service and plush beds.
But beware: make sure the room isn't a lemon: overlooking an airshaft or the parking lot, beside the elevator, above a noisy lounge. And be on the lookout for sneaky ways that hotels cut corners.
Stay in a Four-Star Hotel, But Upgrade to the Club Floor
Always Go for the Club Level
Choosing a hotel that is less than super-luxury is an obvious way to lower your hotel bill.
There's a way to create a five-star experience in a four-star hotel. And that is by staying on the hotel's more upscale club floor.
You may be eligible for a club-floor upgrade if you're a points-accruing frequent guest of the hotel brand. But if you foot it yourself, a club-floor upgrade costs.
You will still be spending less than a luxury hotel room, but the club lounge and its privileges will furnish a five-star experience. See what you get with club-floor status, and whether a club-floor upgrade is worth it to you.
Travel Off-Season & Never on Holidays
High Season Means High Prices
Popular destinations tend to have high seasons with corresponding prices.
National holidays are always high season. You can celebrate holidays at non-holiday rates by leaving the country! I observe the Fourth of July by driving up to the Montreal Jazz Festival. Similarly, American Thanksgiving is just another Thursday in Canada
Family-friendly beach getaways are priciest when families can go: school holidays and breaks.b You're just not going to get a good deal then in South Florida, the Caribbean, and coastal Mexico
Flying at less popular times has its benefits, too. Fares are lower off-holiday and out of season.nIf you're using airline mileage, you will find far fewer blackout dates during off-season and non-holiday
Upshot: To save bucks, work around busy dates. Some times to avoid:
the high-season slam in seasonal destinations (Long Island's The Hamptons in summer, Vail and Aspen in winter). Famous events that create top-dollar rates: New Orleans during Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest in spring; Saratoga, New York during the summer Thoroughbred racing meet: Santa Fe during Indian Market in August; Park City, Utah during Sundance in January.
Vacationing midweek is cheaper in resort and getaway destinations.
Airfares are lowest midweek...but midweek hotel rates are not cheap in cities that host business travelers. And of course, if you can't get vacation days midweek, you have to factor in lost income.
Pay Once for Everything, and Then Indulge
All-inclusive hotels and resorts have been gaining in popularity. In a nutshell, they're easy. They include food, drinks, and tips, a significant savings if you tend to splurge on these. See the pros and cons of all-inclusive plans.
Today's all-inclusives are upscale and elegant. May I present as evidence: In Cancun, Le Blanc Spa Resort and Live Aqua; on Mexico's Riviera Maya: Zoetry Paraiso Bonita; n St. Maarten in the Caribbean: Sonesta Great Bay; and in the Adirondacks of upstate New York: The Point (possibly the world's most deluxe all-inclusive).
All-inclusive trend: Because luxury travelers like all-inclusive pricing, more and more a la carte luxury hotels are now offering all-inclusive options as well. Mexico's dazzling new design hotel offers an AI plan. Hola, NIZUC Resort on a semi-private island off Cancun,
Opt for a Package that Includes Airfare
Get Your Flight Along with Your Room
You can often get a great deal by buying a hotel + airfare deal. These work especially well for last-minute planner.
Vacation packagers like Liberty Travel, Apple Vacations, and others offer these deals (Airlines including United and American offer all-in-one vacations, too -- including airfare, natch). Online "bucket shops" like Priceline, Expedia, Kayak, CheapoAir, LastMinuteTravel, Cheapcaribbean, Sherman's Travel, and many more offer deals -- and comparisons with other sites. "Flash sites" like Jetsetter and Tablet Hotels offer ever-changing deals that you can grab.
Already have your flights? the ingenious Roomer site sells cancelled luxury hotel room reservations for up to 60% off
Rent an Apartment or Villa Instead of Paying Hotel Bills
Sometimes, It Takes a Villa
To save hotel bills...don't stay in a hotel. Rent a room, an apartment, or a villa. Here's how to find a cheap vacation rental, from a room to a villa.
For a city apartment, airbnb and similar services do the job. But...caveat emptor. You'll be able to see the place online in (flattering) photos, but you'll have to research the location yourself. Make sure it's safe; not an hour-long bus-and-subway ride to the town center; and not overlooking a highway, train tracks, or recycling plant. Tip: Use Google Earth (or mobile Google Maps) to see the address in a neighborhood context.
For a resort area, a villa rental may be a better deal than a hotel. A villa makes sense for families or groups of friends. But a villa will provide more space and privacy but less service, and it's unlikely to be as conveniently located as a hotel. See all the ways that villas stack up against hotels.
Do a Luxury Home Exchange
"Trading Places" for Vacation
Home exchanges, also called house swaps, are a global phenomenon. They exist at all levels -- including luxury home exchanges.
The fee is low or nonexistent, but the membership bar is high: to be swap-worthy, your own home must be deluxe. The process is safe, and home-exchange partners are typically very satisfied customers. Find out the whos, whats, wheres, whys, and hows of home exchanges. And see some great places from these trusted home-exchange players: HomeChicHome.com and LoveHomeSwap.com.
Bid Online for Your Vacation
Isn't the Internet wonderful? You can learn all there is to know about a destination or a hotel (such as right here at About).
And then you can bid, auction-style, on a vacation. The gold standard of upscale vacation auction sites: Luxury Link.
Get Insider Deals by Using a Travel Agent
Really, a Travel agent? Uh-huh.
I know what you're thinking: "Travel agents? How pre-Internet." Yes, the Web has made it easy for travelers to research vacations themselves. But it's also true that travel agents, who are professionals and insiders, have better contacts and better access to deals.
And it costs nothing to use a travel agent; their commission is paid by the hotel, tour company, etc. (A super-high-end travel agent, such as from the elite Virtuoso network, may charge a fee, but you'll get a ton of perks like upgrades and freebies.)
Take a Cruise!
Check Out a Floating Hotel (a/k/ a Cruise Ship)
Cruises are generally cheaper than hotel vacations. And you'll see so much more, because every day you sail into a different port. No wonder cruise vacationers are so passionate about their favored mode of travel. (These days, river cruises are hot, especially with people who don't normally like cruises.)
Why? Cruises are generally all-inclusive save for liquor. The US's most popular cruise embarkation port, Fort Lauderdale, is typically inexpensive to fly to. Larger ships like the glamorous Regal Princess have the best deals, because there are so many cabins to fill. Last-minute cruise deals are often the best. A good place to find cruise offers: CruiseCompete.