It's your honeymoon, so naturally, you're thinking big. Two-weeks-in-Tahiti big. Fulfilling post-nuptial travel fantasies often involves a splurge, but when you factor in today's sky-high airfares, stagnant salaries and good old-fashioned belt-tightening (and we don't mean seat belts), there's a good chance you'll end up in a honeymoon money crunch. These days, it pays to be a smart traveler who knows how to beat the system by finding its backdoors. As you plan your trip, brush up on these budget travel tips.
Go When They Least Expect You
Off-season travel is always cheaper as hotels slash rates—often by 40 percent—to attract guests. But, yes, “low season” can also be code for “bad weather.” For example, hotel rates in the Caribbean plunge from May to November, which includes the prime hurricane months of July to October. It's a risk, but one that may be worth the savings: Christine Cordes, a consultant from Falls Church, VA, and her husband, Matt, gambled on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula in June and got a good deal—and good weather. Similarly, Morgan and Sarah Stuart, a neurosurgery resident and a high school teacher from New York City, saved hundreds of dollars per night on their Curacao honeymoon last August. “We knew it was off-season, but because the island is below the hurricane belt, we felt confident the weather would be nice—and it was,” says Sarah.
“If you really want to save money in the tropics, go in September or October and spend an extra $100 for travel insurance,” advises Gabe Saglie, senior editor of Travelzoo.com, which tracks travel deals (insurance, however, won't cover a week of rain—just major weather events, like hurricanes). Don't want to risk clouds? Think “shoulder season,” the buffer months just before and after high season, when rates are reduced but not rock bottom and the weather generally tends to be fine.
Good timing extends to air travel, too. To snag deals, experts suggest flying on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and early on Saturdays. Also, sign up for e-newsletters that alert you to discounts. “Airlines have unadvertised sales all the time,” says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, whose e-mail alert gives promotional codes. These sales usually last 24 to 48 hours and are good for travel up to 11 months in the future. He also suggests buying peak-period (during holidays and spring break) tickets far in advance: “Fares won't come down if you wait, and worse, flights will be sold out.”
Rack Up Those Points
Frequent flyer miles and other loyalty programs from hotels, airlines and credit cards can be your ticket to paradise. If you haven't done so already, join one. Sometimes just registering gets you perks: At Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, enrollees get free Wi-Fi.
Dan Sondhelm, an Alexandria, VA-based financial marketing consultant and self-described “point junkie,” earned enough currency through Starwood Hotels' loyalty program and frequent flyer miles—he travels about 50,000 miles a year—to cover his 2006 honeymoon in Tahiti, which would have cost about $8,000. “We saved a ton, so we could put that money toward having fun when we got there,” he says.
Low on points? Seek donations from friends and family, since most points are transferable. “I never thought we'd be able to afford a 10-day honeymoon in Hawaii on the salaries of a nurse and teacher,” says Lia Moss, of Chicago, who with her husband, Ben Blair, visited the Big Island this past August using miles donated by Ben's dad. “That saved us about $1,500. Crazy!”
The only caveat with miles: Book early, at least six months out, as supply (the number of award seats available) is limited and demand is high.
Pick a Package
With a package that bundles hotel, airfare and a rental car, you'll know upfront what your final tally will be. St. Louis-based occupational therapist Laura Gayer was looking for a way to honeymoon in Tuscany this past September with her husband, Andrew, when she found Untours (untours.com), which offers apartment stays that allow you to live like a local. The two-week package included airfare, lodging and a car. “I priced everything out separately and found we were doing much better and with much less hassle,” says Laura. The cost of their two weeks was $5,500, not much more than what typical honeymooners spend on an eight-day trip. To ensure you're getting a good deal, do as Laura did and comparison shop the components online. You may find more deals. For her Mexico honeymoon, Christine dug around Orbitz.com and found a coupon good for $200 off the package she bought on the Web site.
Know the Hotel Biz
Because room rates are a big expense, it pays to know the ins and outs of booking. For example, a new hotel will often offer introductory pricing at up to half its normal rates as operations get up to speed (but you may risk construction noise or service lapses). Tourism bureau Web sites can usually tell you what's new, or visit HotelChatter.com for the inside scoop.
Also, wherever you go, broadcast that you're on your honeymoon. “Tell everyone,” advises Adam Burke, senior vice president of customer loyalty at Hilton hotels. You might just find a bottle of champagne waiting in your hotel room. “If they know it's a honeymoon, you may end up with unexpected extras,” he says.
Consider a Condo
If privacy appeals to you more than a swim-up pool bar and room service, consider a condo rental. You'll have a kitchen, so you can eat in for breakfast and lunch, and save the dine-out budget for a romantic splurge. Go a step further with a villa or house rental. Portland, OR-based photographer Laura Mazy spent her 2006 honeymoon with her husband, Sierra, on Moorea, in French Polynesia, in a $200-a-night house she found via word of mouth; most resort rates are triple that. “We rented a Jeep to shop at local markets and read journals from previous guests who had great tips,” says Laura. “It was the perfect way to do it.”
If you live in a place that others would want to visit, consider a home exchange (think Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet in 2006's The Holiday), in which you swap your house with another couple. HomeExchange.com offers access to other willing home-loaners for an annual fee of $100. Since you'll have to coordinate on both ends—say, your New York walk-up for their Honolulu beach house—you'll need to be flexible about dates.
Enroll in a Registry
Registries devoted to making your dream honeymoon a reality are now offered by resort chains (Starwood, One&Only and Sandals), travel agencies (DistinctiveHoneymoons.com and MoonRings.com) and independent enterprises (TravelersJoy.com and Honeyfund.com). Just list what you want—such as a couples massage or a sunset sail—and your guests can gift you with it. “We didn't need more stuff to dust and wanted our guests to contribute to great memories,” explains Laura Ahlbin, a health care marketer in Sterling, VA. She used the registry offered by Secrets Resorts & Spas to raise $4,000 for her Cancun honeymoon last summer. Similarly, Heidi Weber, a cable television marketing manager in Albany, NY, used Honeyfund.com to help pay for her October 2008 safari honeymoon to Botswana. “People feel like they're not just writing a check,” she notes, “but playing a role in your trip.”
Do Something Offbeat
If you are low-maintenance types, you can save big time. Enjoy romance under the stars at a tent resort like Maho Bay on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands (maho.org) or El Capitan Canyon near Santa Barbara, CA (elcapitancanyon.com), where rates are less than half of those at nearby resorts. Or consider spending sweat equity on a volunteer honeymoon, working four to eight hours a day teaching children or protecting local species in a place such as Africa, Asia or Central America. For example, with i-to-i (i-to-i.com), you can patrol remote Costa Rican beaches on behalf of endangered sea turtles for less than $1,000 per week, including meals and rustic accommodations.
Save Your Spare Change
If finances are tight, put the official honeymoon on hold and celebrate with a close-to-home “mini-moon.” Plan a long weekend away without going broke. Meanwhile, give yourselves six months to save for a bigger trip. Lia and Ben put $20-$100 in a jar weekly. “If we had left this money in our checking account, I think a lot of it would have gone to Starbucks!” she says.
Check these e-sources to kick-start your search for honeymoon bargains
This site lists discounts/offers from credit cards, loyalty programs and travel providers, such as rental cars and airlines.
This consolidator doesn't sell tickets—it links to online booking engine sites for that—but filters through seemingly every itinerary to provide options galore.
For those who like to live well but not pay full price, this site lets users bid on high-end properties at discount rates.
Use this site to track your miles and loyalty points, consolidate programs and trade them in for rooms, gift cards and more.
America's biggest little airline doesn't sell via booking engines like Expedia.com, so if you want its cheap fares, search here.
The recently launched sibling of Hotwire.com gathers up the best online sales—think three nights at a resort in the Bahamas with airfare for $315 per person. While Hotwire.com offers blind deals, concealing the hotel or airline, Travel-Ticker.com names the sellers.
If you're willing to travel last-minute, sign up for its e-newsletter listing the week's best deals from online discounters.
If you're looking for budget airfares in Europe, this site rounds up routes from discount carriers across the continent.