NEW YORK CITY — If you're heading out of town this winter — whether for a ski weekend or to southern climes for a warm-weather getaway — here are 15 expert travel tips to make your trip as smooth as possible.
1. Travel in early or mid-January
It’s one of the best times to find not only airfare and hotel availability, but also bargains — even for destinations in peak season, like ski resorts and Caribbean islands.
“That first week after New Year’s is called ‘Dead Week’ because hardly anybody is traveling,” said Wendy Perrin, director of consumer news and digital community at Condé Nast Traveler. “That’s when there are a lot of deals.”
2. Travel during the week
“This is especially viable if you have a flexible work arrangement,” said Ed Wetschler, Caribbean editor for “Recommend Magazine” and executive editor for Tripatini, a social network for travelers. “If you can go to regional resorts and vacation areas on weekdays, you will find off-season prices and off-season crowds no matter what in-season it is.”
3. Book accommodations that have a kitchen
The ability to cook your own meals can save a significant amount of vacation dollars, especially if you are at a ski resort or island destination where prices are inflated.
“Never go out on a Saturday night in a resort area if you don’t have to,” Wetschler advised. “That’s their one night of big business and the service is lacking and the prices are higher than they have any right to be. You’re paying for their lack of business Monday through Thursday.”
4. Leave the car behind and travel by train or bus to regional destinations
Most New Yorkers do not have cars, and even for those who do, it can be easier and cheaper to let someone else do the driving. Check out DNAinfo New York’s guide for getting to regional ski resorts without a car.
5. Use public transit to get to NYC metro airports
It’s cheaper, and you avoid traffic jams.
“Public transit, especially out of Penn Station, can be surprisingly fast and easy,” Perrin noted, particularly in winter. “If you’re going to Newark, it’s a quick ride to the airport where the AirTrain picks you up and you go to your terminal. On days when I’m in the office, even on an expense account, I walk to Penn Station and get on that train. I would much rather do that than sit in a taxi that may or may not make it in time.”
However, if your flight departs early in the morning — as many Caribbean-bound flights do — that is the optimal time for a car service, which can be cheaper and more reliable than taxis, Wetschler said.
6. Use the GateGuru app
“GateGuru is good for letting you know what airport restaurants and services are nearby if you’re stuck for hours because of a snow storm or get delayed for other reasons,” Perrin said.
7. Be proactive if your flight is delayed
If stranded by a snowstorm and you have a smartphone, find out what your options are using tools such as the FlightStats app, Perrin said. “It tells you which flights have seats available to your destination so you can call the airline and ask for it rather than standing in a long line [at the gate],” she said.
Another helpful service is CrankyConcierge.com, which provides access to expert "travel dorks" who troubleshoot problems for a membership fee. “If a problem happens, they step in to help solve it," Perrin said. "Use them if you have a complicated situation flying in the middle of winter and want a guardian angel watching out for you.”
8. Consider paying for lounge access if your flight is significantly delayed
This can grant you access to a more relaxing waiting area, complimentary snacks and beverages, helpful agents, free Wi-Fi and even showers at some locations, said Julie Schweitert Collazo, local travel writer and author of the fifth edition of the "New York State" travel guidebook, to be published by Moon in 2014.
Most airlines offer day passes, usually for about $50. Passes start at $25 for the independent Airspace Lounge at JFK’s Terminal 5. Terminal 4’s Oasis rebranded recently as the Wingtips Lounge.
“Agents at airport clubs are often more resourceful and less harried than those at the gate, if delayed,” Perrin noted, adding that only agents at airline clubs can rebook flights. Those at independent lounges cannot.
9. Check your boarding pass for TSA PreCheck
The program allows members to keep their shoes, light jackets and belts on and their laptops in their bags when going through security. Locally, it is available for certain airlines at John F. Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport and Westchester County Airport.
“Even if you haven't officially been invited by your airline to participate in the pre-check program [which costs $85 for five years], many travelers may find a "TSA PreCheck" notice on their boarding passes. Look for this! It gives you a one-time pass into that line,” said Harriet Baskas, USA Today's At the Airport columnist.
Initially, airlines had to invite their frequent flyers for membership, but TSA launched an application process in early December, with enrollment centers opening in New York by the end of the month, Baskas said.
DISCOUNTS AND DEALS TIPS
10. Book ski passes early, or use Liftopia.com
Season passes tend to sell out quickly. If this happens for your favorite ski destinations, check out Liftopia. This online resource has lift-ticket deals — from one-day to multi-day passes — with many at nearly 40 percent off or more.
11. See if your ski resort has an app
Some apps do far more than track the weather and ski conditions. "These apps, such as EpicMix, can keep track of your coverage, how many runs you’ve done, even photos,” said Jill K. Robinson, a travel and gear writer who specializes in adventure. “For people who really get into that or who are competitive, it’s great.”
12. Check out TheFlightDeal.com
This site covers the best daily travel deals from 12 cities, including New York.
“I just got tipped to TheFlightDeal, which has changed my life,” Collazo said. “[It] introduced me to matrix.itasoftware.com, which pretty much blows Expedia [and other online travel agencies] out of the water. It has incredibly flexible search parameters and much lower prices. The only caveat is that you can't book directly, you have to call a travel agent or the airline directly with the matrix fare quote.”
13. Sign up for property or destination newsletters
And don’t forget to follow your dream destinations and resorts on social media outlets, where they often post special sales and deals not available elsewhere.
“Almost every resort in the Caribbean these days has a newsletter,” Wetschler said. “If there's a resort you already know that you like, even if it's a swanky place like Eden Roc, subscribe to the newsletter, and you'll hear about discounts and value-added packages before they get sold out through other sources.”
CheapCaribbean.com is another source Wetschler recommends, with discounts of up to 50 percent.
For more winter travel deals, see the accompanying slideshow.
14. Rent equipment at your destination
Save yourself the hassle of lugging ski or diving equipment with you.
“Rentals are often great. If you are shopping for new ski equipment, you can choose between standard rentals or a demo, which is a collection of that season’s skis,” Robinson said. “If you like the equipment after using it for a few days, you may have the option to buy it at a reduced rate.”
15. Review airline baggage rules before packing
While it’s easier to rent bulky equipment, some people prefer to bring their own, but that could get costly.
“If traveling with ski or other winter gear, check the airline rules about what’s allowed and whether there are extra fees for oversized baggage,” Baskas said.
Also, don’t throw the gear into a light pack. "Make sure ski boots are in a suitcase or padded boot bag if you don’t carry them on," Robinson said. "The last thing you want is to see your really awesome boots get dinged up and the closures damaged to the point where you can’t use them.”