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10 Secrets to Saving Big on Winter Travel

Cut the costs of winter vacation in half with these amazing travel discount tips from the pros.

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Time to Start Saving

“Having a memorable family vacation without mortgaging your future is definitely possible,” says Calgarian Sarah Deveau, author of Money Smart Mom: Financially Fit Parenting. “It’s just a matter of aligning your expectations with your budget.”

And the benefits of coming in under budget are huge, Deveau adds – think less stress, increased enjoyment and no nasty credit card bill when you come home. So how can you make the possible a reality for your family? Follow these expert tips for an affordable winter travel experience that’s tons of fun, too.

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1. Pick the Right Time to Travel

In general, the higher the demand, the higher the price – which is how flights on Christmas Eve end up costing more than it could possibly cost to fly them. Want a deal? Look for the off times, says travel expert Martha Chapman of Tourism Marketing International.

“Your better bet is to travel on off days. If you want to fly to Florida, don’t fly on a weekend, fly on a Tuesday,” she suggests – “that often can make a significant difference.” Choosing a flight at the right time can make a difference too, so be flexible – often a later flight will save you the cost of a night at an airport hotel, while early-morning flights can be cheaper as they’re less desirable to many.

And when it comes to picking hotels in major cities, Chapman says, be conscious of when their peak periods are. Business hotels tend to lower rates on weekends, whereas leisure-oriented bed-and-breakfasts, for example, will have cheaper prices mid-week.

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2. Cross the U.S. Border

Flights out of US airports can be significantly cheaper than leaving out of Canada – especially if you’re buying tickets for a family of four or more. So if you live relatively close to a major portal such as Buffalo, Seattle or Plattsburgh, it’s worth putting in the research to see how much you can save, Chapman notes – so long as you leave enough time for the drive.

“I think it’s a great option, particularly while the Canadian dollar remains strong,” she says. “However, I will never forget waiting three and a half hours to cross the border and thinking I’ll never fly through Buffalo again.”

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3. Travel in Canada

It’s no surprise that Claude Aumont is partial to spending winter vacations in Ontario rather than down south – after all, he works for Ontario Tourism, specializing in motorsports such as snowmobiling. But he’s right that you often spend less when staying near home than when travelling farther afield.

“Quite a lot of operators are bundling packages,” Aumont says. In Ontario, for instance, “some of the key resorts offer winter getaway packages – you can get five-day packages for $500 to $1,200 for a family of four.” Visit your province’s tourism website for information on what’s available in your area.

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4. Take Public Transit

“One of the best things you can do with your kids in Toronto is ride the streetcar across the city,” says Chapman – and the same applies almost anywhere in the world. “Chances are you’ll be the only tourists and you’ll get to know the locals really well.” And, of course, if it’s meant for locals and not tourists, it’ll be far cheaper than any other options.

And public transit doesn’t just mean buses. Chapman suggests looking for “fun and quirky” options such as steam trains in Wales, ferries in Amsterdam or riding the mail truck in New Zealand and Switzerland. Research what the options are in the area you’re visiting.

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5. Don’t Commit to Travel Plans

The surest way to overspend on your vacation? Being rigid about where you want to go and when. Instead, Deveau suggests being open-minded and seeing where you can get a good deal. “We’ve had luck booking off a specific week of holiday time, then waiting until just a few weeks before departure to see which packages are being sold off cheap,” she says.

And if you go this route, be sure to check for deals regularly in the pre-trip period. There are tons of websites offering discounted travel – Chapman recommends travelzoo.com for the wide array of offerings in its newsletter.

Also consider up-and-coming destinations, such as Colombia and Venezuela, that are less popular but can be a lot cheaper, suggests Chapman. “Choose a place that’s got a cheap standard of living.”

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6. Exchange Your Money

While many popular destinations such as Mexico will do trade in US dollars, it’s usually worth exchanging your money into the local currency to avoid terrible exchange rates, warns Chapman. And if you find it confusing to switch – especially in countries with, say, 138 local units to the Canadian dollar, Chapman suggests putting together a cheat sheet before your trip that lists the Canadian equivalent of one, 10, 20, 50 and 100 (or more) of the local currency and keeping it in your wallet for quick and easy access. “That will save you from looking like too much of a tourist,” she says.

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7. Go (slightly) Off Season

Want to head to a certain resort in a certain place when your kids are on spring break? Of course you do – and so does everyone else, which is what drives prices up and turns airports into zoos.

Instead, consider whether you can vacation at a different time – but do keep in mind that spring break timing varies across the country, notes Chapman, so a week’s difference might not help much.

Travelling in Canada? Remember that winter doesn’t end everywhere at the same time. “When winter’s tapering off in the city, up north they struggle because the consumer thinks the snow’s gone,” says Aumont – when in reality, winter sports are still in full swing, and deals can be had.

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8. Self-cater

All-inclusives can be a great deal, and they’re certainly convenient – but often, the best deal can be had by preparing a lot of your own food, says Chapman. “It’s always great to have a fridge and even a two-burner cooktop for those meals when you don’t want to eat out,” she says. “It’s not just about saving money, it’s about the convenience.”

As for accommodation, an apartment or house can be a fantastic budget-friendly option, especially if you share with another family or couple. And “it’s a really great way to feel like a local,” Chapman says.

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9. Plan Ahead

Want to spend a lot of money on that day trip to a popular monument such as Chichen Itza in Mexico? Book it the night before from your resort’s tour operator. If you want a deal, suggests Deveau, plan ahead and look for deals and coupons. “I always leave on vacation armed with a folder full of daily deal certificates, coupons printed online, lists of local restaurants and their meal specials and maps to the local grocery stores.”

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10. Quick Tips

A few more ways to save, according to our experts?

• Don’t rent a car at the airport, Chapman says – you can get much better deals and avoid airport-imposed fees a quick taxi ride away.

• Pack snacks. Your kids’ favourite granola bar will stave off hunger-related grumpiness quickly and cheaply.

• Bring an insulated shopping bag to pick up groceries at the market and pack a picnic lunch.

• Want a fancy meal at a top restaurant? For the best deals, Chapman suggests, go for lunch instead of dinner.