When it comes to saving money on travel, we all know to check discount sites, follow our favorite airlines on social media and monitor our frequent flier points. But did you know that you can save big bucks just by opening your mouth? It turns out that some honest-to-goodness human-to-human interaction can help you win discounts on hotel, cruise and flight bookings.
We asked four travel experts -- Matt Kepnes of NomadicMatt.com; George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com; Jaime Freedman of Travelzoo.com; and Clem Bason, president of Hotwire.com -- for simple questions every traveler should be asking to save money. Their answers, er, questions, are below.
Is there an upgrade available?
Though it may not be in our nature as Americans to haggle or barter for a deal, never feel too shy to request upgrades at airports and hotels.
"Just ask all the time," says Clem Bason, president of Hotwire.com. "Ninety-eight percent of people simply don't ask. The worst answer you'll get back is no."
Jaime Freedman of Travelzoo.com says, "I've seen instances where at the very last second they had business class available, so they offered it as an up-sell incredibly inexpensively."
George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com, notes that airlines would rather up-sell you a seat in business or first class at a fraction of the cost than be forced to give away those expensive seats for free to members of loyalty programs. US Airways, for example, runs a last-minute program called GoUpgrades; beginning 24 hours before your flight, unsold first-class seats can be purchased for ¬between $50 and $500 depending on the length of the flight.
When it comes to hotels, the same policy applies: Ask and you (may) receive. "Always say what you're celebrating," says Freedman. "Drop that it's your honeymoon, your birthday. You just never know what kind of little special things a hotel has in store."
If you have kids, she says, ask about a suite upgrade. And if you're a member of a hotel chain's loyalty program, Bason recommends asking for waived fees, free parking, kids' meals, breakfast or Wi-Fi.
Has the price changed for my seat/room?
"Most people don't realize that there's a pretty good chance that a hotel booking is going to go down in price between the time you book it and the time you arrive," says AirfareWatchdog's George Hobica.
Hotel rooms and airline seats fluctuate in price, so once you've booked, it (literally) pays to check the price for a ticket or room every day until your vacation. If you see that the price has gone down, call the airline or hotel directly to see what they can do for you. In many cases, you may be able to cancel your reservation and rebook at a lower price.
According to a 2011 post by Hobica on AirfareWatchdog.com, airlines like JetBlue, Southwest and Alaska Airlines may offer you a travel voucher for the difference in price. Others, depending on policy, might simply allow you to cancel your flight and rebook at the lower rate. But buyer beware: Change fees can apply to rebooked flights, so be sure your discount is worth it.
Are you running any local deals?
Being savvy with social media can obviously pay off when traveling. Restaurants, spas and museums may use local deal sites -- like Groupon or LivingSocial -- to offer discounts on admission or services. It's always a good bet to sign up in advance for such websites to begin tracking where deals are occurring in your vacation destination.
"Go where the deal is," says Freedman. "More and more companies are starting [to offer local deals] as the competition increases."
Don't know where to start? Ask your friendly neighborhood concierge, says Bason. This especially applies at resort hotels, he says, where the concierge is likely to have or know about promotions and specials that might not be otherwise advertised. The added benefit is that you get to experience your destination like a local.
"When [deals] are sourced locally, it means you're going to places that aren't designed for tourists," says Freedman, and are consequently less expensive. Hey, why should locals have all the fun?
What's the resident rate?
What you don't know about booking a cruise can cost you. One hidden savings gem: the resident rate. You may be able to cruise for less if you're willing to depart from a port in your own state. And with ports of departure now in over a dozen states, you have a better chance than ever before of being able to leave from your home state. If you live reasonably near a cruise port, ask your agent about the rate for in-state residents, which Freedman says cruises offer at a deep discount to increase sales.
"It's wonderful when you can cruise from home. Basically you're going on a Caribbean vacation with no airfare." Freedman notes that while discounts for residents can vary, in-staters may be able to save up to 25 percent on a cruise.
In addition, when it comes to cruises, negotiate with your travel agent when you cruise, says Hobica. Agents are offered incentives from the cruise line and can pass that along to you. Don't be afraid to ask for perks like shipboard credits, which will help you save you on amenities.
Is there a tourism card available?
Matt Kepnes of NomadicMatt.com suggests always asking at the tourism office about a city pass. Popular destinations like Paris, London and New York offer passes that include admission to high-profile attractions. Some even include free public transportation or allow you to skip notoriously long lines at tourist hotspots.
New York City offers several varieties of passes that allow you to tailor your experience. The CityPass ($89 for adults, $64 for children) gets you admission to six main attractions including the Empire State Building Observatory, the American Museum of Natural History, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island. You save 46 percent on combined admission -- that's $76 per adult!
Where are you going tonight?
Ok, that question may sound a little creepy. But don't let that stop you from asking tourism board or visitor center staffers for their own personal recommendations -- not where they send tourists, but where they go themselves. They'll know where to find the best off-the-beaten-path venues and cultural events, says Freedman, as well as which ones are running deals.
When it comes to sustenance, chances are they won't point you in the direction of expensive tourist traps. As Kepnes says, "You're not going to find New Yorkers eating in Times Square." Eating at local restaurants or buying at markets the locals use will save you a huge mark-up and give you a more authentic taste of the area.
What strategies do you use to trim costs on vacation?