1. Summer in the City
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, when residents head for the beach, most big cities empty out, enabling you to score tables at top-notch restaurants, snag choice theater tickets, and take advantage of free cultural offerings. Many hotel rooms are also deeply discounted through the end of August. Plan now, while deals are still available.
Destination: New York, New York
- City Web sites have become surprisingly comprehensive resources. New York’s (nycvisit.com), for example, has inside tips from famous locals, maps, and schedules for open-air movies, concerts in the park, and theatrical performances. (A list of sites for other cities can be found at usa.gov, in the Travel and Recreation section.)
Find a Room
- Take advantage of lower weekend hotel rates. A room at the Benjamin in midtown starts at $503 on June 10 (a Tuesday) but goes down to $386 on June 14 (a Saturday). On Farecast.com, you can use the hotel search function to get advice on whether the quoted rate is a good deal for more than 5,000 properties in 30 U.S. cities. The site bases its recommendations on historic pricing data.
Land a Coveted Table
- Reserve now for summer: business manager Veda Nishikawa of New York’s sushi temple Masa (Time Warner Center, 10 Columbus Circle; 212/823-9800; dinner for two $800) recommends calling at least one month in advance. Check nycvisit.com for the dates of this summer’s Restaurant Week, when top restaurants offer affordable prix fixe menus.
Follow the Leader
- Looking for the perfect guide?The excellent magazine usa.com (actually, the English-language offshoot of a company that publishes German-language guides to America) covers 11 cities in the United States and will lead you to reputable operators in New York. At Big Onion Walking Tours (212/439-1090; bigonion.com; $15 for adults), for example, doctoral candidates will show you often overlooked treasures, from the artisanal markets of the Lower East Side to the clubs of historic Harlem.
Related: The Best Vacation Spots in the U.S.
2. Beach Getaway
If your ideal summer getaway includes time by the seashore, it’s not too late to find a house to rent—even in popular destinations like South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island. According to Gary Strohm, president of beachhouse.com, a site listing 2,200 residences in the United States, at least 15 percent of inventory is usually still available in April. “September is the best time to start looking, but you can find great deals in spring,” says Strohm.
Destination: Hilton Head, South Carolina
Pick Your Dates
- In Hilton Head, a four-bedroom oceanfront house costs $6,000 to $8,000 a week during the summer months. And in September and October (admittedly, hurricane season in South Carolina), the same house ranges from $4,000 to $5,500. Regardless of where and when you rent, follow these rules for a worry-free vacation:
- Go through an established rental agency, which will likely be better equipped than an absentee owner to handle emergencies such as a leaking roof; using an agency will also shield you from fly-by-night scams—not a common problem, though not unheard of either. To find one by location, consult the Vacation Rental Managers Association (vrma.com). Request recent photographs and aerials if they’re available, so you can see the distance from your beach house to the water and to neighbors.
- Carefully review your rental agreement for damage liability, cancellation fees, and nonrefundable deposits. And if your contract doesn’t include travel insurance, consider buying at least basic coverage (see “What to Know Before You Rent,” right).
3. All-American Road Trip
Hitting the open road has been a national pastime since the invention of the automobile. With a few smart devices, you can navigate your way with ease—and save money.
Destination: The Ozarks, Arkansas
Map Your Trip
- Chart your trip with AAA’s online TripTik tool (aaa.com). Enter Little Rock as your origin and destination, then add points of interest in between—towns such as Eureka Springs and Fort Smith, or destinations such as the Clinton Presidential Center & Park. Then find the gas stations with the best prices at GasBuddy.com (a recent check of area prices showed gas ranging from $2.85 to $3.35 per gallon for premium). For picturesque route suggestions, log on to the National Scenic Byways Program (byways.org), which details Highway 7, stretching from the Louisiana state line to the Missouri border, as well as 125 other scenic routes.
Find Local Flavor
- More than 1,200 roadside restaurants can be found at RoadFood.com, from gourmet gurus Jane and Michael Stern. One favorite: Doe’s Eat Place, in Little Rock (lunch for two $15), for family-style steaks, chili dogs, and hot tamales.
Sleep in Style
- If you’re looking for hotels with character and style, the Web site of Small Luxury Hotels of the World (slh.com) will lead you to options like Inn at the Mill (3906 Main Dr., Johnson; 479/443-1800; slh.com; doubles from $115), near Fayetteville. BedandBreakfast.com rates B&B’s on the quality of their rooms, service, value, and dining.
4. Mountain Retreat
After the snow melts, the list of options at alpine resorts actually grows much bigger—and more affordable, whether you enjoy rafting, hiking, golf, or cultural events. “In the off-season you can get out and explore, without worrying about snow delays or putting chains on your tires,” notes Sandra Owings, a Memphis-based travel agent.
Destination: Park City, Utah
Do Your Research
- Browse and book trips, including many at or near ski resorts, at iexplore.com, a well-organized site that specializes in adventure itineraries. Check tourism bureau Web sites for cultural calendars, including events like the Food & Wine Classic (July 10–13) and the Jazz Festival (late August).
Find Deep Discounts
- Prices, like the weather, get better after April. Hotels in Park City, for example, slash their rates by as much as 50 percent. Rental prices drop too; visit resortquest.com to book a condo in the United States or British Columbia.
Seek Off-Season Activities
- Many ski resorts keep at least a few lifts open in summer. In Deer Valley, Utah (deervalley.com), where mountain biking on the slopes is a popular summertime sport, an all-day lift pass goes for less than one-third of the ski-season price. With exhaustive listings of hiking and biking trails and the best fishing spots, wildernet.com is a great starting point for planning outdoor activities near Park City, or anywhere in the country. —Darrell Hartman
5. Northern Cruise
- While most travelers book cruises months, if not a full year, in advance, Anne Morgan Scully of McCabe World Travel in McLean, Virginia, says it’s still not too late to sail this summer: “There are always reasons why people will have to cancel, and staterooms will open up.”
- Persistence is essential, and flexibility helps as well. Your luck may be better if you are willing to cruise early or late in the short Alaska season—that is, May or September—when fewer families are traveling. “In May you might need more winter clothes,” Scully notes, “but there is often less fog along the coast.”
Meet Your Match
- Start your cruise search with a database like the one assembled by the Cruise Lines International Association (cruising.org), which allows you to browse for cruises by destination. A similar—and arguably superior—resource is provided by Frosch, a Houston-based travel agency (froschvacations.com). Its site allows you to customize your searches according to your preferred departure date, line, cruise length, and individual ship.
Get an Agent
- Using an agent who can act as your advocate is crucial. Cruises are generally reserved through travel agents, and those who book the most often get the first chance at cabins that open up unexpectedly. Ten travel agents who specialize in cruises are listed on Travel + Leisure’s A-List.
- Scully recommends putting down a refundable deposit when adding your name to a waiting list. When a cruise line knows you’re serious about sailing, you are more likely to make it on board.
If you are renting a vacation home in Hilton Head, Park City, or elsewhere this summer, consider a supplemental travel insurance policy to cover your security deposit. While often you need only to pay for one night of a hotel stay when canceling at the last minute, you will be out much more cash if you have to cancel a rental. These policies are offered by AIG Travel Guard (travelguard.com) and CSA Travel Protection (csatravelprotection.com). “We highly recommend that our renters invest in an insurance plan,” says Linda Maloney of Beach Properties in Hilton Head. “But only 30 percent do—a big mistake.”