Rock-bottom price for a rental car… First-class airplane legroom for free… and more

The travel industry does not make it easy for consumers to save money. Airfares, hotel rates and car rental rates fluctuate daily… hidden fees unexpectedly inflate bills… and historically high gas prices and a weak US dollar have made it even harder to plan inexpensive vacations. Still, there are ways for savvy travelers to save money…

  • Skip the hotel room. With hotel rates at all-time highs, lodging alone can burn through most of your vacation budget. Rather than overpay, consider these money-saving alternatives…
  • Time-share rentals. Time-share owners sometimes rent out their places when they cannot use them themselves. They often ask a fraction of what a hotel would charge for comparable lodgings. To find a time-share available for rent, check time-share rental and exchange Web sites, such as RedWeek.com and TradingPlaces.com. Also, search the Craigslist.com site for the region you intend to visit under the “Housing” section.
  • Home exchanges. Home-exchange organizations, such as HomeExchange.com and Homelink.org, help members swap homes for a week or two. These programs work best for people who live near popular tourist destinations. Membership in a home-exchange organization typically costs around $100 per year, but the savings on the accommodations more than pay for the membership if you take even one trip each year.
  • Campgrounds. Many people imagine dirt floors and outhouses when they hear “campground,” but some facilities offer clean, up-to-date cabins or rooms for rent so that guests sleep indoors, often for considerably less than a hotel would charge. Some rooms and cabins even include private bathrooms and wireless Internet access. Local visitors’ bureaus can help you find campgrounds in the region.
  • Shop online for package deals. You may have wondered if the package deals offered by online travel sites really do save you money. Often, they do. Expedia.com, Travelocity.com and Orbitz.com purchase airline tickets, hotel rooms and rental car reservations in bulk at low rates — and pass some of their bulk-buy savings along to customers who buy these services together.
  • These package deals can be considerably cheaper than anything you could find by purchasing airline tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars separately. Occasionally a hotel-and-airfare package actually is cheaper than airfare alone.

    These sites’ package deals tend to be most attractive for travel to common vacation destinations, such as Hawaii, New York City, Orlando and Las Vegas.

  • Make a low bid for a rental car on Priceline.com before reserving a car. The Web site Priceline.com lets users bid for rental cars and other travel services. The site either accepts these bids or rejects them — you have nothing to lose by bidding, because there’s no charge to do so. Priceline.com is particularly likely to provide great rental car rates.
  • The tricky part is deciding how low you should bid. Rental car prices vary greatly from city to city and even day to day, making it hard to determine a fair price.

    I start by finding the best rental rate I can through major rental car company Web sites and 800 numbers. (Rental car companies often offer better deals over the phone than they do online.)

    Next, I search for rental car deals on Hotwire.com, a Web site that often has very attractive rates. I take the best price I have found and bid 30% less on Priceline.com. Often, my bid is accepted. If not, I accept the best deal I have found elsewhere.

    Also: Consider reserving an economy car, even if you would prefer something larger. Rental agencies often run out of economy cars and provide free upgrades to customers. This is not worth trying if you absolutely must have a larger car.

  • Upgrade your airline legroom for free. You might not have to ante up big bucks (or frequent-flier miles) for an upgrade to first-class legroom. Simply reserve a coach seat in the emergency exit row. This row typically has several more inches of legroom than other coach rows — sometimes even as much as first class — to make it easier for passengers to exit in the event of an emergency. A few airlines charge extra for exit-row seats, but most don’t.
  • When I am unable to reserve a seat in the emergency exit row, I ask the gate agent to place me on the waiting list for this row as soon as I check in for my flight. You must be able-bodied to sit in the emergency exit row and physically able to open the emergency door.

    Bulkhead seats — the seats at the front of a seating section — typically also have extra legroom. However, bulkhead seats often are reserved for people with disabilities, families with young children and frequent-fliers.

    Helpful: Buy airline tickets as early as possible this year. Many of the major American airlines are considering mergers. Airline mergers tend to reduce competition and increase prices, at least for a while. It is better to lock in today’s fares.

  • Eat lunch out but dinner in. Many restaurants charge about twice as much for dinner as they do for lunch — even though the food is the same and the portions comparable.
  • Trim vacation costs by eating lunch in the fancy restaurants you want to visit but dinner in less expensive restaurants or even back in your room if you have a kitchen or can bring in takeout.

  • Look out for hidden fees. Virtually every company in the travel industry these days seems to be tacking on “hidden” fees. Cruise lines impose “fuel surcharges”… car rental agencies have become stricter about fuel “top off” fees… hotels add “concierge charges” or “resort fees.”
  • Scan the fine print of rental contracts and other travel documents for fee disclosures before signing. If you feel that a fee is not justified, say so — you may be able to get it waived.

    If fees are not stated in your documents, explain that you were not told about these fees and request that they be waived. If this request is denied, dispute the fee charge through your credit card company after your trip.

  • Consider using a travel agent for complex itineraries or a cruise. In this era of book-your-own-ticket Web sites, most consumers consider travel agents unnecessary. But an experienced travel agent can save you money on complicated international trips with numerous stops.
  • When consumers book complex trips on their own, they often suffer missed connections or other unforeseen complications — these problems can be very expensive to resolve. Working with an experienced travel agent makes problems less likely and gives you an emergency on-call problem solver if something does go wrong.

    Also, travel agents who are associated with large consortiums often have access to special rates for cruises and hotels that you couldn’t find on your own.