If you suddenly struck it rich, where would you want to travel? Well, why not go now? It may not be as unrealistic a dream as you think. The fact is that a savvy traveler sometimes can trim the potential cost of a dream vacation to the point where it actually is affordable.
Back in the '60s and early '70s, America's vagabond youth -- toting backpacks and a change of clothing -- proved it was possible to see Europe's fabled sights for only a pittance. They hitchhiked, stayed in hostels and ate cheese, bread and fruit bought in neighborhood shops -- and, on the whole, they seemed to be having fun.
Certainly that's not everybody's idea of a dream vacation. But the point is that you don't have to have a lot of money -- even today -- to see a lot of the world. Just be careful how you spend your pennies.
Here, then, are 12 basic ways to save on a vacation trip this year to almost anywhere:
*Plan ahead, and do your research: Current airline fare structures make it foolish not to schedule a vacation well in advance, if at all possible. Discounts are substantial when you can buy a "supersaver" ticket 30 days in advance on many domestic flights and an "APEX" ticket 21 days in advance on international flights. Since the number of discounted seats often is limited, the earlier you can make a reservation, the greater the possibility of getting the cheapest seat.
There are many restrictions attached to these fares, but if your vacation plans are firm they offer the best buy for air travel.
Research means making an effort to find any available bargains. A travel agent can help find the lowest priced flight, a difficult -- and time-consuming -- task for individual travelers since the variety of fares is so wide and they change so frequently.
Foreign, state and community tourism offices can provide information about less expensive accommodations at your destination. When going abroad, use such offices to check on rail, bus and subway passes as well as reduced-price passes to museums and historic attractions.
*Read the travel ads regularly: You have to check the newspaper almost every day to keep aware of special bargains in air travel. Usually they are offered as the result of a sudden air-fare war or an introductory promotion on the part of a new airline to attract passengers.
Such bargains generally are available for only a limited amount of time, but they can get you cheaply to such agreeable destinations as California, Miami and sometimes Europe. Nonplanners, who can arrange a vacation on the spur of the moment, should pay particular attention to the ads.
*Ask for hotel and motel discounts: Many U.S. hotels and motels give a number of discounts -- for seniors, for families and for weekend guests. But you may have to ask for them specifically; information about discounts is not always volunteered when you are making a reservation or checking in.
Illustrating the variety of discounts available, Hilton Hotels Corp. has just introduced an unusual offer for frequent travelers 65 and older. For a flat fee of $999, a senior can buy lodging for a year at about 200 participating Hilton hotels in the United States. A companion of any age can stay at no extra cost.
Restrictions limit a stay at any one hotel to five nights for a single visit, and participants may not return to the same hotel more than three times in the year. For information: (800) 345-6565.
*Never go during the "in" season: The "in" season at any destination is when prices are the highest.
Winter air fares to Europe drop several hundred dollars from summer's high, and museums now are less crowded and the cultural calendar is at its liveliest. Rooms in the Caribbean are cheapest in the summer, while the beaches remain as inviting as they are in winter. The best bargains for skiers come before Christmas, in early January and after mid-March.
If you want to visit a big city, go on the weekend when business travelers have vacated the hotels, and the rooms are offered to tourists at bargain weekend rates. Here is a chance to stay in some of this country's classiest hotels for up to 50 percent off the weekday rate, and the management may even treat you to a welcoming bottle of wine and breakfast the next morning.
*Travel light: If you can easily carry your luggage, you won't have to hire porters at the airport to do it for you. The more places you visit, the more you save.
And you won't be tempted to hire a taxi between airport and hotel, which means you can take advantage of the lower fares on public buses or the subway, which usually are available in European cities.
*Choose a destination where the recreation and entertainment are free: Skiing is a great vacation, but lift prices at up to $20 a day or more per person can be prohibitive for a family.
If you like going to the mountains, consider a summer vacation at a ski resort, when you can hike woodland trails, fish rushing streams and swim in sky-blue lakes -- at no extra cost beyond lodging and meals.
Similarly, national and state parks -- and, of course, the beach -- can provide day-long recreation at little or no extra cost. An amusement park such as Disney World, as attractive as it is, cannot make the same claim, because of daily admission fees that can take a big bite out of the family's travel budget. Vacation close to home: The advantage of a vacation nearby, of course, is that you save on transportation costs getting there; and, since you probably will have your own car along, there's no need to rent one at the destination.
Travelers in this area are fortunate in the wide and attractive choice of vacations available throughout the year, among them:
The Atlantic Coast beaches -- for summer sunning or winter strolls; the Chesapeake Bay for fishing and sailing; the mountains to the west for skiing in the winter and hiking or just relaxing the rest of the year; a wealth of historic sites to tour; Atlantic City's gaming hotels; and accommodations from plush resorts to cozy country inns.
You may not see the world, but you won't be bored.
*When you're going as a family, rent a condo: Families often can rent a well-equipped condominium apartment at a vacation resort -- in Florida, in the mountains, on a ski holiday, in the Caribbean, in Hawaii -- for about the same price they might pay for a room in a resort hotel or lodge.
A condo, however, almost always will have more space -- including a separate bedroom for parents (not the case with hotel packages promising free lodging for youngsters who share their parents' room).
And in a condo, you can prepare breakfast -- or every meal -- at considerable savings over restaurant prices.
*Consider a tour package: The basic costs of any trip are for transportation (air and/or land travel); lodging; meals and sightseeing (or entertainment and recreation). By buying in bulk for one or more of these elements, tour organizers can put together group packages that the independent traveler would have difficulty duplicating for the same price.
Group packages come in price categories that range from budget to very expensive, often to the same destination. Everybody sees the same sights, but those who pay more dine in more expensive restaurants and stay in luxury hotels.
Packages also are offered for independent travelers, usually in the form of air fare and a rental car or air fare and lodging for less than you might get both separately.
*Look for low-cost alternatives: If you are flying abroad, check into charter flights to your destination. For many reasons, charters are not for everyone, but if you understand their particular restrictions -- for example, limited or even no refund if you cancel the trip -- and are comfortable with them, charters (to Europe, the Caribbean and Mexico particularly) can save you money over the cost of a regularly scheduled flight.
Some travel agents, if you ask, will sell sharply discounted tickets on regularly scheduled airlines -- to Asia and Africa especially -- at less than the lowest price available through the airline itself. Check the travel ads in the Sunday paper and comparison shop. But be sure you are aware of the special restrictions -- limited refund if you cancel -- attached to discounted fares.
Instead of a full-service hotel, stay in bed-and-breakfast lodgings. They are widely available in Europe and increasingly so in the United States. Basically, you are taking a spare room in a private home, but usually at far less than you would pay in a hotel.
Other low-cost lodging alternatives here and abroad: youth hostels (for all ages); YMCA hotels (usually for both sexes); university and college dorms (in the summer); and free home stays abroad, as arranged by US Servas, a New York-based organization promoting international understanding (contact: 212-267-0252).
The "Let's Go" series of guides to various countries of Europe; to Egypt and Israel; Mexico; and the United States is an excellent resource for budget travel. Published annually by the Harvard Student Agencies, the books are designed for college students but are useful to travelers of all ages. They are available in larger bookstores.
*Do as the Romans do: This is a common-sense tip that might not save you great sums of money, but you could end up enjoying your trip more.
If, for example, the natives eat a continental breakfast -- as the French and the Italians do -- then skip a full American breakfast for the duration of your visit to these two countries. An American breakfast can be expensive, and you are missing out on the pleasure of pretending you're not really a tourist.
Europeans are not as fussy about requiring a private bathroom with their hotel room. If you don't mind a walk down the hall, you will pay much less for a bathless room.
*Don't try to do too much: Travelers who want to see all of California or Hawaii or Europe in a two-week vacation will end up spending a lot of money for memories that will soon begin to blur. Costs mount when you are on the move daily.
Stay put for a few days, instead, wherever you stop. Stroll city streets; relax on a park bench to watch the passing crowds; browse in the shops and galleries -- each entertaining, informative and free.
You will enjoy your vacation more, and you will remember more of it. Look at it as a way of getting the best value for your travel dollar no matter how much you spend on a trip.