Tips to cut travel expenses

Stan Thomas | 7/28/2010, 5 p.m.

Planning on a cruise? Adjusting your travel plans by as little as a week can make that dream vacation a reality.

Another cost-cutting measure is knowing that most airlines will add a service charge for making reservations directly through their agents. If you use the Internet to make your reservations, you don't incur that fee.

But, are there times when using an agent is better than making reservations yourself on the Internet? The answer depends on the complexity of your trip. Let's say you are planning to go to Hawaii, stay a couple of nights in the same hotel, then return. You can book that yourself on the Internet and probably get a good price.

If your trip is more complex, or if you want inside information, a travel agent is better.

A travel agent can put together a smooth tour of Africa or Asia, with visits to multiple countries along the way. She can tell you which sites are must-see or must-avoid, and also navigate the customs regulations for you. You could do all of this on your own, but if something goes wrong--and remember you will be in a foreign country--you could end up paying thousands of dollars to get back home.

Agents can be helpful in another way--upgrades. Select a knowledgeable individual, who has been in the business for several years. He or she should know quite a bit about your destination, and in some cases, may have been there. They will have established a rapport with other agents, airlines, hotels, and cruise lines. And although your cruise budget may only allow an inside lower cabin, a good agent may be able to get you a substantial upgrade.

Another benefit of being flexible with travel dates is having the ability to take advantage of last-minute travel deals. You know; the ones that show up in your inbox all the time. TravelZoo is famous for these. Recently, a notice on JetBlue popped up advertising a $49 fare anywhere JetBlue flies. It was only for one day, but imagine the possibilities.

Sometimes, airlines, hotels, and cruise ships offer ridiculously low fares to fill vacancies. The Internet is the best place to find these bargains. Travel sites like Expedia and Travelocity will frequently offer such good deals. The airlines' own websites will have Internet-only deals, which the non-wired public will never know about. You can sign up to have these offers e-mailed to your inbox, when they become available or just pursue the different sites on your own.

Where else can you find great deals? Travel-themed magazines. Budget Travel is all about what its title suggests. Caribbean Travel and Life, Islands, and other similar publications will list some amazing deals. Even finance magazines such as Kiplinger's will do a yearly segment on travel deals.

We have identified a number of ways to stretch your travel budget. You've added to your resources. You've saved on hotels. You've figured out how to get there for less. Now the only thing left to do is pack.

Stan Thomas is a travel writer who has compiled these tips over the last 11 years to help him get the best deals on trips to the Caribbean, Mexico and around the United States.