My husband and I never had a honeymoon, and it seemed to set a precedent over our marriage for the next quarter century.
Other than camping or visiting friends and relatives as far west as Ontario, travel was never high on our list of priorities—by necessity, not desire.
But in anticipation of better budgets and better times ahead, I consulted with Ellen Tucker, president of Freedom Tours and Travel in Saint John, New Brunswick, for some advice about the best value in vacations.
Is sand and surf the only option?
It’s no surprise that for most Canadians, the most popular winter getaways are also the cheapest.
“Cuba has stayed popular because it’s the least expensive,” Ellen says. “Then the Dominican Republic and the Riviera Maya in Mexico, south of Cancun.”
I told her that baking on the beach isn’t my dream holiday. So Ellen offered a few other ideas to ensure that our trip, whatever we choose, is a great value.
Related: Checklist To Make Travel Better
You can’t go wrong with a cruise.
A Caribbean cruise in the summer, to be specific, which is off-season.
“The Caribbean is only two degrees warmer in the summer than in the winter,” Ellen says. “Beautiful—beats the humidity of Toronto.”
She thinks a cruise is an incredible value for a vacation, because all meals are included and they have plenty of entertainment for the kids.
And, because drink packages are sold separately (starting at $50 per day) … if you’re not a drinker, you’re ahead of the game.
“Deciding what cabin you’re in makes the difference, too. If you’re happy to have a room without a window (they often come with a video screen view of the water now, anyway) you can go very cheaply, as little as $499 per person,” not including airfare to Florida.
Free food and entertainment. Most major cruises have three ports of call along with days and nights at sea. You can go to lectures, play bingo or take bridge classes. Most of their entertainment is free, except for very high-end events like Cirque du Soleil. These tickets must be purchased and booked in advance.
Although, if you are a gambler, there are casinos on board, too. “I’ve never done that, but they make a lot of money. Instead I start my day off at the spa, and I take a book to the deck and read and have my quiet time, enjoying the sea breeze and watching the birds. Sometimes the fish are jumping. It’s gorgeous.”
Great for the whole family. Cruises appeal to a wide demographic and the cruise lines are good at offering a little something for everyone. It’s popular with seniors, or couples who want a romantic getaway, or even extended families who are planning their next reunion—complete with tee shirts.
One caveat is the weather. “It is hurricane season between late June and early December, but most tour companies have a hurricane guarantee. If there’s one predicted, you can change to another date.” But she notes hurricanes are much rarer the farther south you go—Barbados, for example.
Wherever you go, travel off-season.
For most types of vacations other than Caribbean cruises, the off-season includes late September onward, excluding Christmas and Easter (anytime that kids are out of school), and prices drop dramatically.
“Even at home, the Algonquin [A historic resort in St. Andrews, New Brunswick] is pretty inexpensive in the off-season. In the summer, the price doubles. It’s the same everywhere. It’s a cost thing to encourage people to travel in the winter.”
Italy is cheaper in April than in June. And most of us wouldn’t want to go to warm places in the summer, anyway.
“It’s over 40 degrees Celsius in Greece just now [July]. A friend of mine is in Provence, France and says they’re going through a terrible heat wave.”
Airfares are also better, because there’s not as much traffic.
“And all the things you want to see won’t be as crowded. There will be special deals at attractions.”
Remember that “Free” is a weasel word.
Ellen warns that the total cost of your trip includes much more than the cost of airfare and hotel.
You might save money because you’re willing to stay at a three-star rather than a four-star hotel that’s not so close to downtown…
But what you don’t figure are the costs of meals, transfers from hotel to downtown, gratuities and entrance fees.
“The Louvre, in France, for example, is expensive,” Ellen explains, “but on some days, it isn’t.”
Or, for another example, on a tour of Ireland, two different tour companies might offer similar excursions, one for $2000, and another for $2500, for the same length of time.
But what do they include? It might be cheaper to choose the more expensive package, because it might include more meals, excursions and attractions.
Always ask your travel agent, “Can you tell me what all the extra costs are?”
Unless you’re an experienced traveller, use a travel agent.
Though this advice may seem self-serving, Ellen insists that even if it’s just a ticket to Toronto, an agent can be an useful ally, especially if something goes wrong.
An experienced agent can tell you if the fare is reasonable on any given route, and when sales are likely to occur. That way, you can plan and save for your trip and be ready to buy at the best price.
Plus, if you travel regularly, building a relationship with a professional who understands your likes and dislikes makes travelling more enjoyable and the planning more convenient.
“People are spending thousands of dollars. Wouldn’t you like to have a professional advising you?”
Airlines set their airfares to make the most of peak times.
“Moncton to Toronto, for example, on 10 May—they know historically how many passengers have taken that flight for five years back. The computers calculate and see that normally, by now, 40% of seats have been sold.”
But if they haven’t sold that much, they have a seat sale. “There are good prices coming up right now for cruise lines for this fall in Europe,” Ellen says.
Of course, it works in reverse, too.
A word about Travel Points.
People do travel successfully using travel reward miles, but Ellen says the secret is flexibility.
“If you can only deal with set dates, your likelihood of success is doggone slim. I have an RBC Avion card and Aeroplan, because on long haul flights I like to travel business class, if I can. 60,000 points will take you to Europe in economy class, but 90,000 points will put you in business class, which is worth a difference of $3,000-$6,000. That’s good value—but I don’t know if it will change.”
And now for something completely different…
I ask Ellen if there is any place in the world she is still dying to see…
“Antarctica,” she replies, without hesitation. “I’d like to walk on the continent and see the penguins. They have no fear of people.”
My eyebrows fly up, but apparently, vacation to Antarctica is a thing.
Some cruise ships sail by the continent, but don’t land. Others land and allow people to disembark and camp overnight.
And for those people who are afraid to cross the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica by sea (which is very rough), a new package will fly you to Antarctica, and you can board the cruise ship when you arrive. But…
“That’s for people who have A LOT of money,” Ellen says, with a laugh.
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