Every month or two we’ll get an invitation to participate in some affiliate program for a travel club, vacation club, or hotel club that supposedly gives vacationers access to insider deals. It’s tempting to join up with them since they offer fat commissions our website would make every time one of our readers signs up.
But just as the brokerage commissions in the movie The Boiler Room were fat because of the dubious stocks they were pumping and dumping, I don’t have much confidence that these discounts coming from “membership fees” are grounded in reality.
Sure, there are plenty of ways to get a legit travel discount, but they’re not hidden in the shadows or held for a select few that get access through a paywall. They just require a little digging or awareness.
Travel Coupon Codes
Coupon codes that will get you a travel discount are not hidden, but they’re in a hundred different places, so it’s hard to know about them unless you subscribe to that company’s e-mail list or visit their site regularly. You can bookmark a site that gathers these up and posts them though, like this one that has a lot of travel discount codes. I found ones for $30 off a HotelTonight booking, an AirBnB discount, and $20 to $25 off at various rental car companies.
Don’t forget to use them when you’re gearing up for your trip either because there are always REI discounts and Target promo codes, for instance if you take the time to look around.
Be Old, Young, or Affiliated
There are special deals out there for certain tribes of people holding the right card. It tends to be a very common card though, rather than some secret one people pay extra for. If you belong to AAA or AARP, for example, you can frequently get 10% off at hotel or car rental booking sites, all coded into the booking process. The same goes for active military. If you’re holding a university student ID or an ISIC card, that will get you a discount too in a lot of situations like museums, attractions, and train rides.
At the high end of the scale, if you have the right Amex card or book a hotel through a travel specialist that’s part of the Virtuoso group, you’ll either get a discount or a pile of extra goodies when you book at a luxury hotel or resort.
If you belong to the loyalty program of an airline or hotel chain, that company will push discounts out to you on a regular basis. These can be last-minute fare/rate drops, member-only sales, or point redemption discounts. For example I flew to Peru and back on United Airlines last year for just 25,000 miles because I had the right airline-branded credit card. That’s normally what a domestic frequent flier round trip will cost. The cheapo airlines like Allegiant, Spirit, and RyanAir are kicking out new deals every week for those on their e-mail list. A few extra messages to clear out each week can save you a bundle if you’re getting ready to go somewhere.
By the way, being “loyal” doesn’t mean you can’t play the field. Join any program of a company you’ll use more than once. Otherwise you’re leaving virtual dollars on the table.
Use Opaque Booking Sites
This strategy worked 15 years ago and it still works today: get hotel rooms or car rentals that the company needs to unload. Whenever a hotel isn’t sold out, it’s making jack squat from those empty rooms. If they had their way they would be at exactly 100% occupancy every night. The marginal cost of selling that last room is marginal, but the gains are significant. They can’t or won’t show a steep discount in public to fill that room though, so you’ll find it on the likes of Priceline and Hotwire—still the two main players in this space. If you dig around on message boards that specialize in these sites, you can take some of the mystery out of what you’ll be getting, but really for one night in a 4-star hotel or a weekend in a midsize rental car, does the brand matter all that much?
You can also take this into your own hands by negotiating directly. This works especially well with independent hotels and roadside motels where the chain rules aren’t so strict. If the place is half empty and you call at 5:00 p.m. to talk about their best price, you’ve got a lot of leverage.
In the end, the steepest discounts go to those who use the laws of supply and demand to their advantage. If you have a lot of variables in your plans, you are the one most likely to find the best deals. Period. This matters more than everything else above added together.
If you can fly on any day, go when it’s not high season, and are flexible about your destination, and aren’t set on a specific hotel/resort, it’s highly unlikely you’ll pay top dollar. I had drinks with a friend the other night who was leaving Moscow a couple months ago with her husband and just wanted to get to Europe. Eventually they would make their way back to North America. It didn’t matter where they landed as long as the flight was cheap. She found one to Sheffield, England (of all places) for a shade over $300 on SAS. Sold!
I’m all ears though if anyone reading this has paid to be in some kind of vacation club and has saved far more than the membership fee in discounts. Leave a comment below. Otherwise, insider deals in travel now seem about as rare as a Bigfoot sighting in Wyoming.