Summer vacation planning starts now: Some things to know

Here's important vacation preparation information from "The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From the Living Dead" by Max Brooks: "If you believe you can accomplish everything by 'cramming' at the 11th hour, by all means, don't lift a finger now. But you may think twice about beginning to build your ark once it has already started raining."

In other words, it's time to start planning your summer vacation. Here are some things you need to know as you look ahead to taking time off — and you are taking time off. Read on.

You need a vacation.If you work full time, you're averaging 42-1/2 hours a week in the hot box. Almost 7 percent of you work 60 hours a week or more. Those are the 2014 stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So why not put on the brakes for a week or more? After all, more than three-quarters of full-time workers are compensated with paid vacation time, according to the bureau. Even your company wants you to take time off not because it worries about you but because unused vacation creates a financial liability — about $224 billion that shows up on the books, says the Project: Time Off report "The Hidden Costs of Unused Leave," an initiative of the U.S. Travel Association. "Harrumph," you say. "That's the company's problem." But it's also your problem because the same study says you're giving back an average of 3.2 days of vacation. It's one thing not to want to give your company a break; it's quite another not to give yourself one.

Try Europe.Summer will be hot, hot, hot (economically speaking) for Americans visiting the Continent, partly because the U.S. economy is strong. The website says disposable income in the U.S. reached an all-time high in February, partly because the dollar is beating up the euro. For every $10 exchanged, you get 9.31 euros, according to a recent exchange rate. A year ago, you got 7.24 euros. That means a hotel room that cost you 150 euros in 2014 — $207 U.S. — will cost you $161 a night this year if rates remain the same. Stay 10 nights and you have an extra $460 in your pocket.

Airfares may plunge.Two positive signs: Fuel prices are moderating, said Warren Chang, vice president and general manager for airfare search aggregator, and competition is having an effect. Although fuel isn't the only determinant in setting airfares — competition and demand play huge roles — Chang thinks airlines are offering a bit of relief to consumers.


Skim the margins.You're usually going to find better rates for Europe, certainly, and the U.S. to some extent whether we're talking hotels or airfare, in the months leading to or from summer. Traveling in April, May, September, October or November means you won't pay as much and you won't be part of the madding crowds. You'll find end-of-summer bargains starting about Aug. 19 or 20, said Gabe Saglie, senior editor for Travelzoo deals site, especially for Hawaii.

Book sooner.You may want to think about changing your hotel booking strategy. It used to be that you'd book about 30 days in advance, said Jon Eichelberger, North American regional manager for North America for Trivago, a hotel search engine. Nowadays, 45 days in advance is probably going to get you a better price. Hotels also are increasingly offering the equivalent of the airlines' nonrefundable fare. The pay-in-advance option is an inventory and revenue management tool for hotels, Eichelberger said; you can save as much as 15 percent on a hotel rate. But remember that the operative word is "nonrefundable." You can't change your mind because you've found something more fun to do or because you're worried about, say, an outbreak of illness or civil unrest. Well, actually you can change your mind, but you may not get your money back.

Or later.You say planning months in advance gives you hives? Here's good, money-saving news: Last-minute bookers are more likely to find airline awards tickets, said Brian Kelly, founder of, which specializes in helping people make smart decisions with their points and miles. The mad scramble for awards tickets usually begins 330 days ahead of the date you want to depart. Given reduced airline seat inventory and the number of people competing for the same spots, you may have trouble. But if you wait until about two weeks before you want to go, you may find new seats being released, Kelly said.

Measure value.Keep your eye on the prize but not always on the price. We leisure travelers generally are price sensitive; the more we save, the longer we can stay. But every expert I spoke with reminded me that value is also important. For instance, in trying to choose between a four- or five-star hotel in Mexico, don't automatically rule out the fiver just because that's what it is, Eichelberger said. Take a look at those too; you can often find a top-drawer hotel for just a bit more. The same is true of rental cars, cruise ship cabins and more. Consider where you can stretch your budget and where you must hold the line, and choose based on the comforts and amenities you need for a great trip. There is something worse than no vacation, and that's a bad one.

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