LAURA SUTHERLAND, author of four guidebooks on family travel, fields many questions, but none more often than, "How can we spend less money on a family vacation?"
Her answer is so obvious as to be overlooked. "The best way people can save is to avoid eating in restaurants too much, to pack picnics for breakfast and lunch, then go out for dinner," she says. Ms. Sutherland lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., with her husband, son, and daughter. The children serve as "research assistants" for their mom's travel writing. She is a regular contributor to Family Travel Online (www.familytravelforum.com) and co-authored "The Best Bargain Family Vacations in the U.S.A. (1997)." Her experience during the past 10 years as an industry watcher and seasoned traveler makes Sutherland a good source of wisdom, including in the area of hotel and motel reservations. When booking ahead, she first suggests asking about lower rates, whether seasonal specials, AAA-member discounts, or special packages.
Besides calling the toll-free reservation number of hotel chains, she recommends calling specific locations. "There's local pricing," Sutherland explains, "and a lot of times they may not know the latest deals when you call the 800 number." (Want to share a travel tip of your own? See box, right.)
Even without reservations, walk-up travelers can often do better than the posted rates. "It's fair to bargain, especially if you've got a couple of choices," Sutherland says. "You can be honest and say, 'I know you're not full. What kind of deal can you give me tonight?'"
This obviously works best late in the day, after the walk-up traffic has subsided. Sutherland has frequently had $10 or $15 knocked off the price of a room taking this tack. Occasionally one can do far better.
A friend of Sutherland's pulled into a high-end hotel in California's Big Sur region one rainy night. The posted rate was $250 a night but the desk clerk, knowing he had many vacancies, said, "Make me an offer." The room rented at $100. During peak vacation season, when demand is high, customers may be fortunate to get a room at all. Choice hotels and motels may be sold out months in advance, but Sutherland says the situation is far from hopeless.
"Planning ahead will get you the best places and best deals, but if you haven't planned ahead, don't despair," she says encouragingly. "There's a big period of time when you absolutely can't get anything, but if you call back at the last minute, there sometimes are cancellations even at the most desirable vacation spots."