This year, your summer vacation may make you nostalgic... for last year. Ah, good old 2004, when airlines were desperate and gasoline was $1.98 a gallon. In 2005, Americans are traveling in record numbers, and the hotels and airlines are celebrating with price increases topping 4 percent. "Every sector of the travel industry will be up, up, up," says Suzanne Cook of the Travel Industry Association of America. You may be tempted to "vacation" on the couch. Don't do it; you can still get a deal if you know how.
Think cheap. Most travelers decide where they want to go, then look for deals. Big mistake, says bargain-travel expert Tim Leffel. He figures out what he wants to do, such as sit on a beach, tour a foreign city or go to an amusement park, and then looks for the least expensive spots. You can go to the Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio, for pennies on the Disney dollar. If you're craving an international experience, seek out destinations where the dollar is strong, such as Thailand, Romania, Argentina or Turkey. In the United States, you'll get cool savings if you can stand a little heat, says Judy Nicholls of Four Winds Travel in Aurora, Ill. She's booking Chicagoans to New Orleans (average high: a tolerable 89 degrees), where they can get airfare and three nights in a nice hotel for a total of $355.
Go cheap. Ray Smith, a Cleveland-based traveling salesman who is on the road 35 weeks a year, is obsessed with saving money, especially when it's on a vacation he's paying for. His favorite trick is driving to low-fare regional airports. He once saved $541 on a round trip to Portland, Ore., by driving to Toledo's airport, parking his car and getting on a flight that routed him right back through Cleveland. He comparison-shops every flight he takes on expedia.com, travelocity.com and orbitz.com. And he stays as flexible as possible on dates, too. For cruises, check fares on cruiseman .com, where the same cabin on a seven-day Caribbean cruise from Miami costs $1,099 per person if you leave on July 30, but $999 if you leave on Aug. 13.
Stay cheap. Use your frequent-flier miles, which are getting harder to cash in for good flights, to pay for your room. Also, check out the time-share-rental deals at redweek.com, where you can get a studio with a full kitchen in Manhattan for $200 a night, or a two-bedroom, fully loaded luxury condo on Myrtle Beach, S.C., for $1,200 a week. That kitchen will save you money on meals, too. Before you leave, scour the postings at trip advisor.com, where travelers and local experts leave their best advice on such things as undiscovered restaurants.
Maybe you didn't know a vacation could be this much work. But when you get home, you'll have a few bucks left in your pocket for that first re-entry latte on your way to work.