Over the last few years I’ve had quite a bit of experience with finding ways to get a family of four to some pretty spectacular destinations on a less than spectacular budget. There have been a few splurges here and there as well as a few amazingly good deals. But there’s also another surprising reason why I’m able to find great trips on a limited budget: over the past few years I’ve probably cancelled as many things as I’ve booked.
Now some things are obviously set in stone. Once you’ve booked a flight you’re pretty much stuck with it. Even if your airline and ticket type does allow for changes, the change fees are often about as much as the original flight. But aside from flights, most other aspects of travel are surprisingly flexible.
Take cruises for example. Disney Cruise Lines, the one I’m most familiar with, allows you to book and hold a future cruise for a deposit of 20%, or 10% if you book while you’re already on a cruise. While 20% of a trip that costs thousands of dollars can be a significant amount, it’s fully refundable up until the final payment is due, usually 90 days before the cruise departs. (Suites and some specialty sailings can be different so be sure to read the small print.) This means that money I spend on a Disney Cruise deposit isn’t really money spent until three months before; Disney is just taking care of it for a little while. Much like my bank, with no real difference in interest rates either. MSC cruise lines has a similar policy. Cruise prices can vary quite a bit and often popular sailings increase significantly in price after itineraries are released. Putting a refundable deposit on any cruise you’re even vaguely interested in is a great insurance against these price increases.
Hotels are another example of something with a lot of price variation and flexibility in booking. Prices are often released a year in advance and bookings can usually be easily cancelled up to about 24-72 hours before arrival, or even up to midnight of the arrival day. So for example, say that you’re thinking of booking a quick family getaway in a nearby city, but you’re not sure the dates of your school district’s spring break next year. Go searching through the hotel booking engines and websites of your favourite hotel chains and if you see a good price, book it! Book a few different dates if you want. Then, when the school dates are released you can just cancel the dates you don’t want. And as an added bonus, if it’s a place where a lot of local people like to go during school holidays you’ve insured yourself against the price increases that will probably happen when people start booking up those popular dates as they come closer.
One word of caution, though, is that many places offer a non-refundable rate as their cheapest option. This means that the hotel charges the full amount of the booking onto your credit card at the time of booking. This cheaper rate can be a great deal if you’re 100% sure of your plans, but otherwise I’d stick with the cheapest refundable option which requires a credit card to hold it but doesn’t charge anything until you arrive. Be careful to keep good track of your bookings though, since the hotel will charge the stay to your credit card if you’re a no-show.
Another great option that can save some money is to make a refundable booking as you’re getting your plans figured out. Then, after flights are booked and plans are more set you can go back, make a cheaper non-refundable booking and cancel the original one. I recently did this on our three night stay in Dublin and changed our three night stay without breakfast to a three night non-refundable stay with breakfast for 25 Euros less. You can also keep a watch on other properties and easily jump ship if something better comes along.
Car rentals can be booked the same way. This is one area where I have never found any value in booking early. Almost every time I’ve booked a car I’ve found very high prices quoted a long way out with prices coming down steadily until about a month before the trip. I usually book about a month out, but several times I’ve changed my booking when a better deal shows up. Keep in mind that unlike hotels and cruise ships, car rental fleets are very flexible. I’ll often see a message when I search saying something like, “This location is experiencing high volume for these dates. Book soon!” I usually just roll my eyes and think, “yeah, right.” If it was three days before I’d worry, but when you have three or six months out they can just shift some inventory from another location. Yes, prices are generally higher in at certain times and there’s no reason you can’t book early if it gives you peace of mind, but car rental is one area where I’ve never seen much benefit from booking very early with the option to cancel and change.
One last thought is theme park tickets. Most of the big parks raise their prices about once a year, usually just before the busy summer season. Sometimes the increase is only a few dollars, other times it’s as much as 10 to 20 percent, especially if the park is opening a big new attraction. If you know that your family will be visiting a theme park in six months, it can be worthwhile to purchase tickets as soon as your plans are finalized, even if they can’t be returned or refunded. For example, we visited Disneyland for the first time in October 2012, a few months after they opened their big Cars Land expansion. In May of that year the ticket prices increased significantly, by about $25 per ticket for the three day tickets we wanted. I saw a news article talking about rumours that prices would be hiked soon and I bought tickets just before the jump, saving quite a bit of money. Just be sure to check the expiry dates on the tickets; they’re usually valid until December 31 of the following year.
And that’s why I managed to book and cancel more travel than I’ve actually kept in the past few years. Some people may think it’s a bit sneaky and others may stress at the thought of keeping track of it all, but I want to stay on the road and knowing and taking advantage of cancelation policies. You’ve got to know when to fold them sometimes too!