DIY Vacation Booking: BYOTA (Be Your Own Travel Agent)
There are many different ways to book a vacation, ranging from hiring a travel agent to purchasing an all-inclusive resort stay. Usually, when you put your vacation in someone else’s hands, you’ll wind up compromising, either on the price or on the amount of freedom you’ll have to go exploring during the holiday. However, if you’re willing to put a little elbow grease into it, a top-notch, personalized vacation can be had for a comparatively cheaper price.
There are three key components to booking a DIY vacation and carrying them out isn’t all that hard; it just requires a bit of savvy web search and a bit of chatting with the locals in your destined land of leisure.
Searching for flights
Instead of booking a flight through a travel agent or a major internet travel company, focus your efforts on searching flights through sites like Bing Travel. If you know your desired departure dates (especially if you’re flexible) sites like these will meta-search all of the airline companies on your behalf, conveniently organizing the results from cheapest to most expensive.
The trick here, to really get a good deal, is to do a bit of finessing. For example: If you want to go to Costa Rica from Toronto, try searching Toronto-Costa Rica first, observing the flight connections, which perhaps in this example are Toronto-LA-Costa Rica. Then do another search, entering Toronto-LA instead, which will result in a cheaper fair as only half the distance is covered. Then do a third search, in which you check LA-Costa Rica and you’ll almost certainly find that there’s a super-cheap flight from a hub like Los Angeles to a vacation spot like Costa Rica.
Combining these two separate flights (Toronto-LA and LA-Costa Rica) is usually considerably less expensive than booking straight through on one specific carrier. I’ve done this plenty of times, with a recent experience traveling to Fort Lauderdale on Air Canada, then to Aruba on Air Tran. Once you’ve found your desired flights, repeat the process for your return flights.
In terms of accommodations, try using online classified sites like Used.ca to find locals or snowbirds that are renting their private homes when they’re not vacationing themselves. Not only can you save money, but more often than not, private homes include a full array of amenities ranging from washer/dryers and fully equipped kitchens to private pools, bicycles and kayaks. These are usually amenities you’d have to pay for in a commercial vacation package.
While our own Used.ca sites have an array of these types of listings, another great resource is VRBO.com. Again, using Aruba as an example, my wife and I recently booked a ten-day trip in a fully loaded, one bedroom villa for $67 per day. That’s just $337 per person for ten-days. A deal that’s almost impossible to beat.
Even more impressive deals can be had if you’re trying to vacation with a big group of people. In Hawaii for instance, entire mansions on plantation-grounds can be rented from $80-$100 per night, if you’re bringing at least ten people along for the ride. A perfect scenario for destination weddings.
There’s an advantage to waiting to book vacation activities. Yes, sometimes a person can save by pre-booking but many times one’s understanding of the local scene and local activities is constrained by what comes up on a Google search. If you wait until your arrival, or at least until you’ve booked your accommodations, you can take advantage of the private homeowner’s local knowledge.
Actually, it’s rare that you have to ask about the “best” local activities or non-touristy things to see and do; owner’s are usually very eager to make sure you experience the very best their private paradise has to offer. For example, during a villa-stay in Turks and Caicos, the owner let me know of a local woman who doesn’t actually own a restaurant but does serve up the island’s best conch fritters after church, on Sundays, right out of her home. For me, donating a few dollars for fresh, homemade conch fritters was a far better experience than ordering a pricier version in a restaurant.
While this is just one example, there’s usually a whole array of inexpensive, locally based experiences to be had and all that’s required to find them is a few conversations with the people who live there.
Here’s the deal
So to recap, with a little time and effort, you really can BYOTA (Be Your Own Travel Agent) and book not just an inexpensive vacation but a very personalized one as well. Keeping with my Aruba example above, it’s worth noting that combined, my wife and I spent about $1400 on airfare, $675 on accommodations, $200 on food and another $200 on activities and a car rental. In total, our vacation cost around $2475, which means a ten-day, totally customized, unconfined, private vacation for just about $1200 per person. A wonderful deal.
These are just a few tips on organizing a DIY vacation and I’m sure there are many other great ones out there. If you have any tips or stories to share with the Used.ca community, please do in the comments below!