May is a thankfully quiet month in the travel business. It’s known as the “shoulder season” due to the lull in demand between the busy spring break/Easter period and the peak summer travel season, which begins in mid-June.
If you have the flexibility to travel right now, it's a great time to go. Lines are shorter, planes are less crowded, and hotels and cruise lines offer plenty of last minute deals to fill in gaps in demand. For example, four-night Caribbean cruises are going as little as $179 per person this month. Virgin America is flying between Dallas/Ft Worth and San Francisco or Los Angeles for just $218 round trip if you fly before June 22. Flights between New York and Dublin, Ireland are still below the $1,000 mark if you can go this month.
For business travellers, shoulder season is "the quiet before the storm", when those who continue to travel through the summer have to share their space with throngs of vacationers. May is also the month when smart travellers firm up summer travel plans. With the global economy warming up and travellers everywhere releasing pent up demand for vacations, it's going to be a long, hot summer. Those who plan ahead will fare best.
Here are five tips to smooth the way:
Book your air travel now if you plan to travel during the peak summer travel season, which generally runs from mid-June through the end of August. While airfare bargains during peak season will be few this summer, booking ahead will at least secure flights at the most convenient times and the best seats on the plane. Wait much longer and you'll be stuck in the middle seat on the red-eye.
Hotel rates are not rising as fast as airfares so smart travellers can still score deals, even during peak season. But don't just shop for rates, shop for the best package. For example, hoteliers worried that high gas prices might keep US travellers at home are rolling out promotions to help cover fuel costs. For example, The Copley Square hotel in Boston is providing a $50 hotel credit to guests who show up with a gas receipt from the date of their arrival. Several Marriott hotels in California, where gas prices are highest, are offering guests $25 gas cards.
Budget conscious travellers should seek out hotel chains such as Best Western, Country Inn, Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn Express that include extras like breakfast, parking and Internet in their nightly rates. A family of four staying at a hotel with free breakfast can start the day saving about $40 -- that's enough for at least half a tank of gas! If a good breakfast is important to you, call ahead to determine what will be offered because the buffet can vary widely from hotel to hotel. Some offer just the basics such as cereal, toast, coffee and fresh fruit, while others cook up more elaborate spreads that include hot items like eggs, bacon, sausage, waffles or pancakes.
International travellers should pack their plastic to get the most for their money. They should try to pay for as much as they can using credit cards, which offer the best exchange rates, even if they do charge foreign exchange fees of 2% to 3% per transaction. International travellers should also use ATMs where possible because despite transaction fees, they offer better exchange rates than what is typically offered by hotels or banks. Nearly every major international airport now has ATMs that dispense local currency.
Checking in for flights during peak summer travel season can mean standing in long lines to check bags, especially on international flights. If at all possible, pack lightly and carry on your luggage, or consider shipping bags ahead of time to avoid this hassle. (Shipping bags long distances can be quite expensive; this alternative is easiest on the wallet if shipping to nearby destinations.) Peak summer travel season is also a time when it is definitely worth paying for day passes to airline clubs. Most offer day passes for about $50. If you are stuck at an airport for several hours, just walk in the club and inquire about a day pass at the front desk. Also, check on the benefits associated with your credit cards. For example, American Express Platinum cardholders now get free access to American, Delta and US Airways lounges in the US and hundreds of lounges overseas via a recent partnering with Priority Pass. Similar benefits are available with other cards, so it's worth checking before you get stuck at the airport.
To find the lowest prices, choose off-peak flights that depart on Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday; fly mid-day or mid-night; choose alternate airports (such as Oakland instead of San Francisco or London Gatwick instead of Heathrow) and book summer trips during dips in demand like now until early June. You can also find deals by not following the crowd to the beach or lake during the summer. Instead head to Colorado, Utah or even Arizona where there are thousands of luxury resorts and condos that sell for $100 per night when they typically go for $500 or more during the winter peak.
Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel