Guide to getting travel deals

SINGAPORE - The June holidays are around the corner. It is an ideal time to plan ahead so the finite vacation dollar can be stretched for flights, rooms and expenses on the road.

There are many, many tips for scoring travel deals, but just remember three over-arching strategies, distilled from the insights of travel experts and meshed with my experiences as a travel writer: Just ask. Go the other direction. Do legwork.

For starters, Ms Debby Soo, vice-president (Asia Pacific) for travel tool Kayak and a San Francisco-based frequent flyer, says she simply asks for deals from airlines and hotels - and she gets bargains half the time.

1. Upgrade at the airport

Photo: The Straits Times

At the airline counter, ask how much it costs to buy an upgrade to business class or premium economy.

Sometimes, the fare is significantly cheaper. Airplane seats are perishable items, so an airline may be prepared to sell an upgrade to gain a bit of profit and loyalty.

The passenger ends up with a good, restful experience especially on a long-haul journey, and will hopefully think about that airline for a future flight.

2. Also upgrade at hotels

Same thing at hotels. Ask to upgrade to a desirable room, for instance, on a higher floor. Remember, it never hurts to ask, nicely.

3. Skip one night in hotel

If a traveller is prepared to take a red-eye flight - or an overnight sleeper train, which I find comfortable - that saves one night in a hotel, and saves time too.

On arrival at the hotel, ask if an early check-in is possible. Or e-mail your early check-in request before the trip, though the hotel may not have a full picture of room availability in advance.

4. Early bird discounts and more

Tourists taking a photograph among flowers at the Keukenhof garden in Lisse, Netherlands, on April 28, 2016. 

Look for early bird discounts or last-minute deals. The travel industry has created discounts galore - for seniors on cruises, honeymooners at resorts, singles on tours, friends booking flights in pairs, children holidaying with parents, leisure travellers booking into business hotels for the weekend, and more.

I have seen free flights or ferries to islands. Look for deals too when airlines launch new destinations.

5. Digital disruptors

The sharing economy is prevalent in travel. Wander affordably by booking AirBnB rooms, riding in Uber taxis and exploring with Vayable local guides.

6. Budget versions of luxe

A safari, Trans-Siberian train journey or Galapagos cruise all sound luxurious and expensive.

However, there are pocket-friendlier versions that are widely available online: Tenting instead of staying in a stylish safari lodge; planning one's own journey across Siberia or booking a less pricey cabin on a private train; and taking day-trips instead of cruising in the Galapagos are ways to save while relishing an authentic experience.

7. Experienced travel agents

Think travel agents are passe? A reliable travel agent or tour operator has the resources and connections to land good deals, whether it is a direct flight or a bespoke safari.

More importantly, a travel specialist is likely to have the wits and wherewithal to save the vacationer heartache when things go awry, for instance, when flights are mis-booked or a traveller is stranded.

Seek recommendations from other travellers or look at testimonials to find a good agent. Agencies with experienced staff include Flight Centre Singapore, Travel Media and CityState Travel.

Luxury tour operators Lightfoot Travel, Country Holidays and Paveway Explorer Holidays have organised my trips well, and I have had wonderful experiences with overseas travel operators such as Walk Japan, Lernidee Trains & Cruises for Trans-Siberian trains and Lost World for Kamchatka.

8. Distressed destinations

Super-cautious Singaporeans tend to avoid afflicted countries. Last year, Paris endured terrorist attacks, Korean tourism was affected by Mers, currency trouble roiled Greece, Bangkok's Erawan Shrine was bombed, and Nepal and Mount Kinabalu were both struck by earthquakes.

The savvy traveller knows that when a destination is recovering, there are bargains. Locals are friendlier and attractions are less crowded as well. But of course, when you travel to any destination, you should always be on the alert and take the usual urbanite's precautions.

9. Go local

Photo: AFP

Thais and tourists taking to the streets to drench each other as they celebrate Songkran - the Thai new year - in Bangkok on April 13, 2016.

Think like a local and seek the cafes they adore, supermarkets or markets they frequent, and activities that give them a buzz. Consider apps or websites that suggest how to experience cities like a local and save a penny along the way.

The Spotted by Locals app, for instance, has guides for 66 cities in Europe, North America and the Middle East.

The EatWith app links food-lovers to home chefs and pop-up dining events in 150 cities worldwide including Tokyo, Lisbon and Cape Town. The Withlocals app lets travellers sign up for meals, activities and tours with locals in 11 Asian countries.

10. Travel sites

Travel sites such as Kayak, Skyscanner and TripAdvisor have mined their prodigious data and refined their algorithms to help travellers find the best prices.

Kayak, for instance, reveals that the best time for Singaporeans to book least costly flights to the most popular Asian destinations - such as Denpasar, Bali and Hong Kong - is two to three months in advance.

TripAdvisor's Near Me Now service in the app is also useful in guiding visitors to good eats, tours and more.

Use these free tools to help in your research for travel deals.

11. Free tours

Photo: Reuters

Tourists walking in the Medina, in the old city of Tunis, Tunisia.

Google websites such as Free City Tour for complimentary walking tours led by enthusiastic locals or insiders. Travellers meet at a pre-arranged site and tip the guide.

12. And more

It's worthwhile to remember these pieces of common wisdom: Try to focus your frequent flyer miles on a smaller set of airlines or alliances, and use credit cards linked to airlines to chalk up miles.

Travel to places where currencies have dipped or stayed low against the Singapore dollar. The choices this year include Russia, South Africa, Japan, Australia and Malaysia.

This article was first published on May 6, 2016.
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