NEW YORK (CNNfn) - The summer months are closing in, and chances are you are already dreaming about where you will spend your next vacation.
If you are like most dollar-conscious consumers, you'd probably like to go somewhere distant, somewhere relaxing - somewhere that won't break the bank. Well, with a little smart shopping, experts say, you can have it all.
The road less traveled
By far, the easiest way to cut back on travel costs is to scratch Western Europe, Hawaii and the popular Caribbean islands off your list. By choosing a lower-cost destination, you'll save significantly on airfare and lodging and often get the benefit a more exotic experience.
"The two biggest factors that determine travel costs are: Do you go to a rich and therefore expensive country, or do you go to a poor and therefore inexpensive country?" said Edward Hasbrouck, a long-time travel agent and author of "The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World."
"It's something people think very little about, but the cost of travel is almost purely a function of local wage scales," he said.
The best bang-for-your buck, this year, Hasbrouck said, lies across the Pacific.
"Clearly the bargains this year, as they were last year, are in the areas of Asia most impacted by the currency crisis," he said. "People hear the word crisis and they get scared off, but this is a tremendous tourist opportunity."
Prior to the Asian economic collapse, he said, major carriers were adding routes and boosting seat capacity at an alarming pace. But these days, many Asians can't afford to venture abroad and few tourists are flying in - forcing most carriers to deeply discount their tickets.
Hasbrouck said tickets from California to Asia this year, historically a high-cost route, can be far cheaper than flights to Europe.
"These days, there are an enormous number of empty seats on those planes," he said. "This is the time to get your feet wet in Asia if you haven't already done it."
There are bargains to be had in Africa and South America this year, too - not to mention Central and Eastern Europe.
"Anything east of the former Iron Curtain is still significantly cheaper than Western Europe," Hasbrouck said.
"These are the fundamentals that get lost," he said. "People are trying to get these half-priced hotel cards, but they will still end up paying five or ten times more than what they'd pay (for the same vacation) in Thailand or Indonesia."
Arthur Frommer's BudgetTravel online offers similar advice. Top picks for low-cost destinations on that site include: Bali, Thailand, Costa Rica, Belize, Turkey, Honduras and Vieques, a small island six miles off the coast of Puerto Rico.
A ticket to ride
When booking tickets directly through an airline, Laurie Berger, editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, advises consumers to wait for the midnight hour.
Many airlines, she said, discount tickets (up to 30 percent) for a few hours late at night to test prices in the market. They frequently jump back up again during business hours the following day.
"Late at night is usually when airlines load new fares and discount existing ones," Berger said.
And don't forget to take advantage of all the discounts to which you are entitled. Many airlines offer deep discounts to seniors and students. Some credit card companies, too, including American Express, frequently offer companion tickets free to gold- and platinum-card holders, part of their aggressive promotional campaigns.
Berger said they usually come with lots of restrictions, but "sometimes they can be very good deals."
In general, booking your tickets directly from an airline is not recommended, since sales agents are least likely to inform you of any deals or discounts. But if you're flying last minute, it can pay off sometimes.
Enter: the Internet.
Virtually every airline these days, determines ahead of time how many tickets on their routes will likely go unsold. The week of the flight, those seats are put on the market at deep discounts via their Internet Web site. Like many of its competitors, American Airlines, for example, sends out weekly e-mails advertising discount airfare to registered users through its Net Saavers program.
Berger said major carriers, not wanting to lose completely on empty seats, are sometimes willing to "dump" their tickets for up to 75 percent off.
"These e-mail fares are where the airlines dump inventory," she said. "Based on years of accumulating industry data regarding load factors, they know how many seats on a route are likely to be sold and how many will be empty. It's more advantageous for the carrier to deeply discount those seats than not to sell them at all."
Be forewarned though, last-minute airfare deals usually come with a lot of restrictions. Most often, they require a weekend stay and some ask that you fly out on a Tuesday or Wednesday.
"The Internet has really revolutionized travel and travel booking," said travel expert Laura Powell. "Consumers are now able to find great deals at the last minute a lot easier."
"Most airlines offer special e-mail newsletters to advertise last minute deals," she said. "They can offer quite a bit of savings. The downside is you have to play by the rules of the airline. You are more restricted."
She noted there are several sites, like priceline.com that allow travelers to "name their price" for airline tickets. (You have to guarantee your offer with a major credit card) The company accepts your bid online, and then tries to find an airline willing to release seats at your asking price.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.
In the case of priceline.com, you'll find out within one hour whether they've been successful in tracking down your "leisure tickets." Just so you know, tickets are non-refundable, non-changeable and do not earn frequent flyer miles.
If you prefer flying a major carrier, or wish to rack up frequent flyer miles on a single airline, you'll do best to price flights on a specific route that competes with a low-cost carrier. Competition is likely to rule in your favor.
Lastly, Berger said, you should shop around for airfare prices at all airports in your area. You can save a lot by flying into the airport that is least convenient to business travelers.
The discounts, though, don't end with the airlines. Booking your hotel room can be a bargain hunter's paradise, too - if you know where to look.
Berger said most travelers simply call the hotel and accept the price quote given. That's a mistake.
"With hotels, like airlines, you have to shop around," she said. "One of the best ways to get a good deal is to negotiate with the booking agent on the phone. They are trained to quote you the highest rate possible and unless you ask them for their lowest rate they won't give it to you."
For starters, ask if they have senior rates (if that applies to you). Many, too, have special corporate and weekend rates. (Sometimes they'll give you the corporate rate just for asking - without ever asking for the name of your company).
Ask for their lowest possible price. If you don't like what you hear, try digging up the newspaper closest to the hotel. You might be surprised at what you find, Berger said.
"Very often these hotels advertise special deals in their local markets rather than in a national publication," she said. "You can also call a travel agent in that area. They'll usually know about local deals."
For high-priced tours
Elaborate international tours may not be your cup of tea. But if a weeklong trip through the African safari, or a tour of the Egyptian pyramids, is on your agenda, experts say it's smart to leave most of the bookings to locals.
"If you insist on having things reserved and purchased from the U.S. beforehand, rather than arranging to purchase them locally, that can have a profound effect on costs," Hasbrouck said.
Instead, you can book your flight in the United States, doing your own research to make sure you've planned your trip when the tours are operating, and book the tour itself in the native country.
"The costs of paying a travel agent to make all your reservations can be very high compared to the actual local currency costs of providing that tourist service," Hasbrouck said. "The same safari out of Nairobi, the same guides, vehicles, tents and drivers, will cost you twice as much when you book it through your local travel agency. They just incur higher costs."
Bide your time
If you still can't find the price you were looking for, you may have to postpone that summer vacation altogether.
Traveling in the spring, fall and winter can sometimes cut costs in half. And before you start pouting, it can also be more enjoyable.
"Traveling in the off-season can make a huge difference in travel costs to any destination," Hasbrouck said. "The more experienced travelers these days are making efforts to avoid going anywhere during the 'best' time to be there. That's the most expensive and most overcrowded time to be there anyway."
-- by staff writer Shelly K. Schwartz