Award-winning broadcast journalist and author Jeanette Pavini writes the Buyer Beware column for MarketWatch and wants to hear your stories, questions, problems and complaints. Write to her at BuyerBewareMKTW@gmail.com .
Looking for great summer travel deals? The trick to finding vacation-season savings is to know where the deals are (think Florida and Spain) and to know when to find them (shop for tickets and fly midweek).
With no end in sight for high fuel prices, travel experts say this is the time to start searching for the best deals on flights and destinations for the summer months.
According to both AAA Travel and BestFares.com, Florida tops the list for summer deals. Best deals? The beaches of Ft. Lauderdale and the theme parks of Orlando.
Spirit Airlines has added flights into Ft. Lauderdale, and Virgin American now has service from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Orlando. The increased capacity has helped pushed fares lower, particularly for flights from Dallas-Ft. Worth.
Resorts in Orlando currently have some package deals to make family travel more affordable this summer: Walt Disney World Resort is offering free family meal plans when staying at a Disney resort or hotel. Universal Studios Orlando has discounts on admission and parking for guests staying at their on-site hotels.
Tom Parsons, chief executive officer of BestFares.com, said he thinks the lowest fares for a European vacation during the peak summer season of July to mid-August will be to Spain. Travelers may be able to get fares between $300 and $600 less than to other European countries.
Parsons said flights to Spain -- especially to Barcelona, a popular cruise embarkation port -- are usually fuller and so airlines are able to give passengers a better break on ticket prices.
Other European destinations with good fares include Ireland, which has a fuel surcharge as much as $70 lower than other European countries.
"The rest of Europe is facing $1,500 airfares for July travel; these [countries] are under $900 from many East Coast cities and this includes the high fuel surcharge for European travel," Parsons said.
If you have your heart set on other European countries, you could save several hundred dollars if you travel between May 18 and mid-June, or after mid-August.
"We are expecting to see huge fare drops for travel after Aug. 13 through October, across the board for Europe travel," Parsons said. "Once the Summer Olympics are over we expect to see some good deals in the U.K."
He also said it looks like the best time to buy tickets for peak summer travel will be in mid-April. Each week, airlines put fares on sale for several months out. Mid-April is when the airlines are most likely to offer the best fares they can for travel in July and August.
While travelers might find better fares by waiting a few weeks, they might also find more competition for the seats on the flights that best fit their schedule. Cynthia Brough, a spokeswoman for AAA Travel, advises people to begin searching and book early for the best availability.
"The key to securing a great travel value is knowing when to buy," Brough said. "For summer travel that time is now." She also recommended reading package restrictions and disclaimers carefully before buying.
Vacationers who can get away before or after the peak season may find the best deals. For fun in the sun outside the U.S., look to Cancun, Mexico. BestFares is offering a four-night, four-star beach resort, roundtrip airfare and all taxes for under $600 per person. This is for travel after between April 8 and Memorial Day weekend.
If Hawaii is your hot spot, traveling from now until June 7 or after Aug. can save you between $200 and $300.
Parsons said there might be some good deals for vacationers to San Juan, Puerto Rico. For other popular Caribbean hotspots -- Grand Cayman, Jamaica's Montego Bay, Antigua and Aruba -- airfares are likely to be twice as high, even on off-peak days. He said deal-seekers should look at JetBlue, Spirit and AirTran airlines for the lowest ticket prices.
If you're thinking about taking a cruise, AAA Travel has exclusive offers from Celebrity Cruises for Alaska itineraries out of Seattle that include special onboard credits and AAA member savings. ResortVacationsToGo is listing deals of up to 50% off for Alaska cruises and tours in June with Princess Cruises.
Cruisers may be able to find some deals for European cruises, where cruise lines are offering incentives to passengers who might balk at the high price of airfare. A 12-day Mediterranean cruise aboard the Crown Princess, out of Venice June 17, could be booked for around $100 a day. Luxury cruise line Silversea is offering several Europe and Mediterranean cruises with free round-trip airfare and transfers, lower single supplements and deals on business class air.
"Last year, many airlines reduced seating capacity to Europe, primarily in response to economic conditions," said AAA's Brough. But, she added, to offset the resulting higher ticket prices, companies are now offering airfare promotions to accompany European cruise and tour bookings.
Here are a few suggestions for travelers seeking the best summer vacation deals:
* Know when to book. Parsons said, "80% of airline airfare sales start on a Tuesday and end on a Thursday. We suggest that people hold off booking until 4 p.m. Eastern on any day a fare sales is launched. This gives other airlines time to match and post lower fares."
* Know when to fly. The best days to fly on are Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Fridays and Sundays can be double the cost. And remember, if you must travel during the peak summer months, mid-April is likely to be when you'll see the best airfare offers.
* Before buying travel insurance, check with your credit-card companies, auto club and your homeowners or renters insurance policies to see what coverage they offer for overseas travel.
* Shop for travel insurance from a third party. Independent travel insurance companies will probably give the best coverage and rates, as opposed to getting insurance directly from the airline. Read the policy carefully, and understand cancelation and refund limitations.—Jeanette Pavini is a regular contributor to various publications and Better.TV. She also hosts the weekly TV series, "The Real Deal" on NBC Bay Area and is the national spokesperson for Coupons.com. Write to her at BuyerBewareMKTW@gmail.com.