Summer vacation is rarely cheap. Flights, hotels and other costs are higher for the simple reason that it’s high season and more people are traveling in the summer.
My family can’t get around that because our daughter is still in school, and summer is the longest stretch of time off she has.
To deal with the high travel costs of summer, we’re again doing something we started doing a year ago — paying for our summer vacation six months ahead of time. I’m all for spontaneity and picking a vacation spot at the last minute if I can find a deal, but our choice is decided six months early because of a huge savings that makes planning so early imperative: free housing.
As I wrote last year, we saved $4,000 by doing a home exchange in Europe through HomeExchange, a website that allows members to swap homes. It was a wonderful trip and the home exchange allowed us to save money on what can add up to the most expensive part of a trip after airfare.
Why plan summer vacation so early?
When we returned from our trip last summer, my wife and I were already talking about where we wanted to go in summer 2018. It was a year away but we were already finding on the HomeExchange website that some homes in places we wanted to visit were already booked. There were still plenty of homes available, so we put off sending exchange requests until October.
We set our sights on Canada, mainly because we were interested in Montreal. Another big reason was that we didn’t want to endure another long flight from San Francisco to Europe. Instead, we focused on areas in North America that were within a six-hour flight.
After months of emails with exchangers, we finally found two homes to exchange and we’ll be visiting Ottawa for two weeks and Montreal for two weeks this summer. We’re also visiting Toronto for a week, though that will be an a hotel, Airbnb or some other paid accommodation.
I’ll get into the ins and outs of home exchanges in a future post. For now, I’ll just say that after a year of exchanging, I’ve learned a few things that I wish a home exchange veteran would have told me about from the start.
Flexibility is key
Last-minute exchanges or ones worked out a few months ahead are still possible. We got our arrangements for a July trip finalized in January, but we’re still getting queries from people in February who want to stay in our home.
And we could have picked other places to visit instead of just focusing on Canada. We live in the Bay Area, which is a highly desirable place on HomeExchange.com for exchanges, so finding a good exchange shouldn’t be difficult. However, we live in a suburb, not in San Francisco, so our main selling point is that we’re a 45-minute subway ride to San Francisco.
There must be some kind of law about finding good options after you’ve booked a vacation, because after we finalized our Canada trip we received home exchange queries from homeowners in the English countryside, the Swiss Alps, Ireland, Turkey, Buenos Aires and San Diego, among others.
The point is we could have waited a few months and probably still have found a great home exchange for this summer. But arranging it in January gave us a greater choice and allowed us to save in other ways.
More summer vacation savings
We don’t usually go to a travel agent to book vacations, but we did with this flight because in summer 2017 a travel agent found us a package deal that basically got us a few free hotel nights in Belgium, where we didn’t have a home exchange lined up.
I was hoping for a similar deal with our flights to Canada, but the travel agent we worked with didn’t have any. Still, she got us good rates on Air Canada that we were able to upgrade to business class seats on the flight to Ottawa for a reasonable amount of money.
But more than that, I think we saved on airfare by buying in January instead of waiting until April or so. At least that’s what the travel agent told me.
While summer sales can happen, the Air Canada flights from San Francisco are usually booked full during the summer, she said. That lessens the chance that prices will drop as summer approaches.
In fact, I waited one week after getting the price quotes from her on our Canada flight dates because some date confirmations were still needed, and the price went up $100 per ticket. A sale that I had unexpectedly run into in January had ended over the weekend. We then bought tickets.
Another area where we found early savings was in train tickets. We’re taking trains from Ottawa to Montreal, and then to Toronto and back, so I wanted to book our train tickets early after seeing how crowded trains from Paris to Amsterdam were last summer.
VIA Rail Canada has three types of Economy class fares: Economy escape fare, Economy, and Economy Plus. The Economy escape fare is the cheapest and is about $220 cheaper than Economy and $350 cheaper than Economy Plus. The more expensive tickets don’t have service fees for exchanging a ticket or getting a refund, and the escape fares aren’t available for long.
We ended up saving about $1,000 by booking our train trips six months early.
Do I want to go through all of this planning six months early? Probably not. Finding a travel deal at the last minute is appealing, and it’s something I expect my wife and I will do more often when our daughter leaves for college.
But if we can save thousands of dollars by booking transportation early and arranging a home exchange, then putting together a summer vacation in the winter is worth it. After all, many people think about a summer vacation while indoors during the winter, so why not act on it?