A VACATION SHOULD FEEL LIKE A REWARD, but that doesn't mean it should break the bank. The trouble is that most travel guides either ignore the expense factor- or obsess over it, turning the bargain hunt into the main adventure.
MONEY's first Best in Travel Awards shift the focus to a more universal—and useful—metric: value. We selected all of our winners—from the domestic and international destinations to the best airlines, hotels, cruises, and travel cards—because they land in a travel sweet spot: great choices at great prices.
To locate where quality, cost, and value intersect, we relied not on our reporters' favorite haunts, but on something far less subjective: data. With input from more than 40 sources-—including Trip-Advisor, Numbeo, Hotels.com, J.D. Power, and Onboard Informatics—we considered financial factors, such as overall costs and price trends, as well as experiential ones, such as cultural attractions and tourist amenities.
The result is a list that's both timely and handy, packed with the kind of intel that makes saving money as easy as a walk on the beach. Call it your ultimate vacation value guide.
Airfare decline year over year
WHY IT WON: The best combination of outdoor attractions, cultural landmarks, great weather, and affordable hotels in the country.
The best weather of any big city in the country (263 sunny days a year). The best zoo in the world (sorry, Bronx). Gorgeous beaches, acclaimed theaters, and new foodie destinations all over town. All that and average four-star hotel rooms go for less than $200 a night. San Diego may be overshadowed by the City of Angels 120 miles to the north, but it's pretty heavenly too.
And this year San Diego is shining brighter than ever. Overall, the city ranked No. 3 on our list of the best parks and outdoor venues in the country. On May 14, the San Diego Zoo celebrates its centennial with free events. The baseball All-Star Game comes to the city in July. And March saw the opening of the Liberty Public Market (liberty-publicmarket.com), a 30-stall food hall located in a renovated, "20s-era warehouse in the Liberty Station neighborhood. Not that the city needs more food options. With more than 9,000 bars and restaurants, San Diego ranks No. 5 on our list of top eateries (and drinkeries).
In a town known for its Mexican food, it may be surprising that San Diego's Little Italy has also become a culinary pit stop. The Baja-inspired Bracero Cocina de Raiz (bracero-cocina.com) makes a great carrot aguachile ($17) and offers $1 off beers during happy hour.
You won't have trouble finding great, affordable hotels. San Diego has more top-rated hotels than Chicago, San Fran-cisco, and Las Vegas. At the retro Pearl Hotel in Point Loma you'll pay as little as $126 a night.
Hotel prices year over year
WHY IT WON: New York has more A-list sights than any U.S. city, and the cost of hotels and flights is dropping. Go give your regards to Broadway.
Everyone knows that New York ain't cheap, but it's been getting cheaper. The Big Apple is our only location where both hotel prices (down 6.1%) and airfares (down 3.3%) fell year over year.
Credit for that goes to competition among airlines and a hotel-building boom. There were more than 100,000 rooms in 2015, up from 73,000 a decade earlier. "We've added the entire inventory of San Francisco," says Fred Dixon, president and CEO of NYC & Co., the city's tourism bureau.
Two hot neighborhoods are downtown, as in downtown Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn. At the sleek W Hotel near the World Trade Center memorial, you can find a room for $175 a night. Over the bridge in Brooklyn, the Nu Hotel mixes old-school touches like hardwood floors with funkier nods such as in-room hammocks. Rooms start at $225, but you can find deals on Jet-setter.com for $125.
Saving money out on the town means thinking like a native. Grab a great lunch from the ethnic food carts around Rockefeller Center for less than $10. If you're hungry for some theater, hit one of the city's three discount TKTS booths, but wait until late afternoon when the lines have thinned. And at the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it's okay to ignore the suggested entrance fee and pay what you want.
Airfare drop year over year
WHY IT WON: With the drop in airfares, a new Graceland hotel, and all that great barbecue, you won't be singing the blues here.
The time has come to take singer Marc Cohn's musical suggestion and go walking in Memphis. The average roundtrip airfare has fallen almost $50 year over year, and a four-star hotel room costs $154 a night on average. Somewhere Elvis is smiling.
One of the best deals in town are the free outdoor performances at the Levitt Shell, built in 1936 in downtown's Overton Park. For an even more down-home introduction to Blues City, try the Hi-Tone Cafe, a dive bar where locals gather for live music ($10 cover for some shows) and cans of Wiseacre Brewing's Tiny Bomb, made with local honey ($5).
Along with the music, Memphis is known for its finger-licking barbecue joints, such as Central BBQ (cbqmemphis.com). "The pulled-pork sandwich ($5) and mac and cheese ($3.50) are essential orders," says Holly Whitfield of ILoveMemphisBlog.com. Elvis fans should keep tabs on the new Guest House at Graceland, located about eight miles from the city center and set to open in October (graceland.com/lodging). Introductory rates will start at $159 a night.
Average cost of a hotel room
WHY IT WON: Beautiful beaches where sunny days outnumber cloudy ones by 2 to 1. Plus: Airfares have fallen three years in a row.
Miami gets the jet-setters-—and the sky-high prices. Fort Lauderdale gives you the same ocean beach for less. The average hotel with four stars on travel-booking site Trip-Advisor will cost you $40 less in Fort Lauderdale than in Miami. Thanks to the ever-expanding Fort Lauderdale airport, the average roundtrip airfare dropped by almost $30 a ticket last year. Even Florida's 6% sales tax is a bargain compared with most states', and Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale, is one of the few with no local tax.
If it's your first time in town, stroll along the beach between Sunrise Boulevard and Bahia Mar, says Erik Petersen of Fort Lauderdale Magazine. The main shopping strip, Las Olas Boulevard, is dotted with restaurants. At Mangos (mangos-onlasolas.com), the Las Olas shrimp with olives and artichokes over pasta is a specialty ($21). After dinner, stay to dance to the music performed by local bands (no cover fee).
Fort Lauderdale hotels average $161 a night, according to Hotels.com. You can even find a waterfront bargain: Ocean-view rooms at the Sun Tower Hotel & Suites (suntowerhotelsuites.com), start at $149 a night in May.
Average price of a five-star hotel
WHY IT WON: If you're looking for a great deal on a five-star hotel, Vegas is a sure bet. Head downtown and you'll eat for less too.
What's the biggest jackpot in Vegas? It could be the hotel prices. Thanks to a huge supply (almost 150,000 hotel and motel rooms) and prices kept low to lure gamblers, the average five-star room costs about $199 a night. You can even get a room overlooking the dancing fountains at the famed Bellagio for $189 a night in April.
Las Vegas is now also easier and cheaper to get to, thanks to new direct flights on Frontier, Southwest, and Virgin America. The average roundtrip airfare has dropped to $254, a 7.1% decline over the previous year.
On the other hand, it's easy to go for broke on dinner, as Vegas has become one of the country's new culinary capitals, ranking just behind San Francisco and Houston on Trip-Advisor's list of top restaurant cities. That said, even a top-end restaurant such as db Brasserie—home to a $139, 42-oz. prime côte de boeuf—has daily $1 oysters specials, from 5 to 6 p.m.
You'll also save if you venture outside the casino zone. Carson Kitchen (carsonkitchen.com), where entrées range from $15 to $19, helped lead the revitalization of downtown and is an easy cab ride from the Strip, says Andrea Bennett of Vegas magazine.
Lowest cost of living
WHY IT WON: Some of the best things in Austin really are free. The rest is affordable for travelers too.
Austin is famous for its live music, growing foodie reputation, and offbeat personality. But what visitors don't always appreciate is how affordable the self-proclaimed capital of "weird" can be. Austin ranks No. 9 of the 100 destinations on our list in overall lowest cost of living, which includes the price of food, restaurants, and entertainment.
One great way to take advantage of Austin is to spend time outdoors. Austin ranks No. 18 on our list for the quantity and quality of its parks. Among the favorites: the hike-and-bike trail around downtown's Lady Bird Lake and the nature paths, swimming holes, and rock climbing walls in the city's 832-acre Barton Creek Greenbelt, an urban oasis.
A good home base: The Hyatt Regency, in the downtown area, features a pool and stunning views of the city and the lake. Rooms in April start at $180 a night, 27% below the average price in Austin. "Grab a cocktail and patio table at Contigo," says Zagat Austin editor Veronica Meewes. Try the rabbit with sage dumplings ($17; contigotexas.com).
Decrease in average airfare
WHY IT WON: Spend your days gallery hopping and pay next to nothing in entertainment costs. Even the airfare is a bargain.
Santa's Fe's charms have always been funky, eclectic—and cheap. It ranks No. 4 on our list for museums, and the Santa Fe Gallery Association says there are more than 200 art galleries in town. Spend all day art hopping and you'll never spend a dime, if you can resist buying a painting.
Even if you can't, a Santa Fe trip will still leave you with spare cash. The average roundtrip airfare has fallen 2.5% year over year. Hotels are also generally affordable; the average cost is just $159 a night. For easy access to downtown, try the Sage Inn, an adorably kitschy, Southwest-themed spot with free breakfast and Wi-Fi (santafesageinn.com, from $94).
The city also scores high on our amiability index, which looked at intangible factors, including crime rates, weather, and air quality. In fact, Santa Fe was No. 3 overall, behind two locations in Hawaii.
Two inexpensive, arty destinations that are also worth a stop: the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum ($12) and the restored Jean Cocteau Cinema, a 128-seat art-house theater. If you're lucky, you might catch the theater's owner, Game of Thrones mastermind and Santa Fe resident George R.R. Martin, taking tickets.
SOURCES: DESTINATIONS: Onboard Informatics, TripAdvisor, STR, Hopper, Trivago, Numbeo, Hotels.com, Statista, Travelmath, Factual.com, InfoGroup, Walkscore.com, TravBuddy, and Travel + Leisure. AIRLINES: Department of Transportation, Statista, Flightglobal.com, Airportechnology.com, Nationsonline.org, Hopper, Skytrax, and J.D. Power. RENTAL CARS: J.D. Power and Kayak. HOTEL CHAINS: J.D. Power, Hipmunk, Hotels.com, Gogobot, and Travel + Leisure. RESORTS: Kayak, Trip Advisor, and Orbitz. CRUISE LINES: Cruise Critic, CruiseCompete, Cruiseline.com, Allthingscruise.com, CDC, and Travel + Leisure. FREQUENT-FLIER PROGRAMS: J.D. Power, Wanderbat, Travel Codex, Switchfly, and airline websites. CREDIT CARDS: NerdWallet and ValuePenguin. TRAVEL APPS: Google, the iTunes Store, Appcrawlr, PC Magazine
Value of dollar vs. koruna in past year
WHY IT WON: This beautiful capital has long been one of Europe's secret values. With the strong U.S. dollar, it looks even better.
Some people call spire-filled Prague the Rome of the North. In recent years it has taken on the look of Hollywood, too, as a location in The Bourne Identity and Casino Royale. It's obviously a beautiful city, with castles and cathedrals dotting the city, and its lovely Vltava River. It's also a bargain.
Your dollar goes about 7% further this year vs. the Czech koruna. And because Prague isn't Paris or London, the lower profile means lower prices overall. The average five-star hotel room costs $135 a night. One grand choice: the Lokal Inn (lokalinn.cz), which is housed in a restored 18th-century building near the landmark Charles Bridge. Rooms start at $98 a night.
Prague ranked No. 9 for museums on our international list, and you'll want to check out the original manuscripts of Beethoven's Fourth and Fifth symphonies at the Lobkowicz Palace (tickets, $11; lobkowicz.cz), suggests Nathalie Nagy, a travel adviser with Pro-travel International. Close by, stroll through the Mala Strana district, known for its cobblestoned alleys lined with small shops and cafés.
And wherever you go, try the trdelnik (about $2 at sidewalk stands), a rolled pastry baked around a metal rod and doused with sugar and butter. But you can afford to eat well just about anywhere. The cost of a day on the town has fallen almost 10% in the past year.
Average hotel cost year over year
WHY IT WON: One of the safest cities in Africa is also one of the most affordable. Hotel, dining, and other tourism costs are 30% less this year.
This Moroccan city is a shoppers' paradise that's gotten even better as the dollar has appreciated almost 7% in the past year vs. the dirham. The bargain-hunting center is in the walled Medina quarter, with souks selling spices, jewelry, leather goods, colored-glass lanterns, and more. For an unusual shopping and culinary experience, sign up for a half-day cooking class at the Sanssouci Cooking School (cooking-school.com), which starts with a trip to the marketplace for ingredients before pre-paring a meal with a dada, a Moroccan cook ($165 per couple).
You'll find excellent lodging values all over the city—the average price of a room has dropped 14%. If you can, stay in a riad, a traditional house surrounding a garden courtyard. At the Riad Berbere (leriadberbere.com), all the rooms have patios or balconies and include breakfast and afternoon tea. Rooms start at $91.
Marrakesh is also remarkably crime-free. It's the safest African destination on our list, with a lower crime rate than Vienna and Edinburgh.
Decline in hotel room rate vs. last year
WHY IT WON: Looking for a clean and affordable Asian experience? You'll breathe easy—and eat for less—in the Taiwanese capital.
If you're looking for a value-minded overseas vacation, check out Asia, which placed five of the top 10 destinations on our list. In Taipei the average hotel-room price dropped almost 11%, and the new Taiwan dollar decreased 5% vs. the American dollar.
But what really put Taipei ahead of its neighbors are its more intangible qualities. The air in Taiwan's capital is, on an average day, four times cleaner than it is in Beijing-—and cleaner than the air in Chicago too. Taipei also ranks No. 9 in our list of 100 cities for the lowest crime rates.
So what's to do in one of the cleanest and safest cities in the East? Eat local food, for one thing. There are more than 3,000 restaurants rated four stars or better on Trip-Advisor. At the Ningxia Road Night Market, a seafood feast will barely cost you $20, says travel writer Adam H. Graham. For a feast of another kind, the National Palace Museum houses one of the largest collections of Chinese art in the world. Enter after 4:30 p.m. and admission is only $4.50.
You can take in the whole city from the 89th floor of the Taipei 101 building. The ride up costs $15, and thanks to that crystal-clean air, you can see practically forever.
MONEY'S BEST IN TRAVEL METHODOLOGY
MONEY weighed more than 12,000 data points in 222 travel-specific areas. Here's how we picked the winners:
We examined the 100 most popular travel destinations in the U.S. and the 100 most popular overseas, based on total web searches for a given location, hotel rooms booked, plane tickets purchased, and the volume of reviews for local tourist-related businesses and points of interest.
We then ranked the destinations, giving the most weight to places with a drop in year-over-year prices, as well as the most high-quality amenities based on travelers' reviews. We also considered overall costs, weather and crime reports, and transportation options. Only one city was chosen in each state. Rankings also considered additional MONEY research and reporting.
For each category (hotels, airlines, car-rental companies, cruise lines, credit cards, all-inclusive resorts, and frequent-flier programs), we chose a top pick (platinum) and a runner-up (gold). Rankings were based on overall cost, year-over-year price declines, and travelers' satisfaction surveys, with extra emphasis placed on tourists' perceived value. For apps we focused on those that saved users money, then tested each to see how they performed.
For a full methodology, go to money.com/besttravel.
Home Away From Home
BEST IN TRAVEL 2016
MONEY ranked the 71 biggest national hotel chains based on average cost per night and year-over-year price changes, along with customer ratings in a variety of areas: the reser-vation process, check-ins, room quality, food and beverages, services, facilities, and fees. We also factored in reader reviews from our sister publication Travel + Leisure.
Wingate by Wyndham
Rooms at Wingate by Wyndham cost about $100 per night in 2016, down 9% over last year, according to Hipmunk. But cus-tomers still give it higher satisfaction scores than many upscale hotel chains (and even a few luxury ones), thanks in part to the free Wi-Fi, 24-hour fitness centers, and hot breakfast you'll find at every one of its 150-plus hotels. "A lot of "extras" are a given—that's something people appreciate," says Krista Canfield, getaway expert at the crowdsourcing website Gogobot. Nights at the chain's Manhattan location—three blocks from the Empire State Building—start at just $176 in early April.
Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
The Four Seasons has always meant luxury, and its rooms are still rated No. 1 among all North American hotel chains, according to Travel + Leisure. But if you have ever wanted to pamper yourself at one of its 96 locations worldwide, the time is now. While Four Seasons hotel rooms can run $400–$500 a night, that's down 10% from the year before, according to Hipmunk. And the Four Seasons is famous for its luxe list of complimentary amenities, from canoeing in Maui to salsa lessons in Costa Rica. Kids under 5 also eat free at every one of the hotel's properties.
TRAVEL TIP: BOOK DIRECT. Search the web for low prices, but then go to the hotel's website and check for a better deal. "Some hotels have decided they're sick of paying Expedia and Booking.com, and they want to reward you for booking directly from them," says Jason Clampet of the travel website Skift.
Away From It All
BEST IN TRAVEL 2016
No one likes to worry on vacation, and at an all-inclusive resort you need to think about only one bill. MONEY started with TripAdvisor's list of the Top 25 All-Inclusive Resorts in the World, then picked the winners using price data and guest ratings of amenities, room cleanliness and comfort, hotel staff, location, perceived value, and overall satisfaction from TripAdvisor, Orbitz, and Kayak.
It's no wonder 100% of Orbitz reviewers recommended this Greek resort. Lo-cated on a private, fir-lined stretch of the Aegean Sea, the Ikos Oceania is home to three pools, a spa, free tennis, mountain biking, windsurfing, canoeing, snorkeling, yoga, and what Ikos calls the gastronomy. "One way all-inclusives are starting to distinguish themselves is by the chefs they've got on site," says Gabe Saglie of deal site Travelzoo. Ikos Oceania boasts two with Michelin stars among its four restaurants. The average bill is $304 per person a night, according to Trip-Advisor, and if you book five or more nights directly with Ikos Resorts, it will give you free transfers to and from Thessaloniki International Airport, a $150 value.
Beloved Playa Mujeres
If you want to stay closer to home, head to Beloved Playa Mujeres, nestled on Mexico's Caribbean coast. Beloved Playa Mujeres is just a short drive from Cancún's nightlife and Riviera Maya's archeological sites but still offers the appeal of a se-cluded getaway. It's certainly pricey—$528 per person a night, according to Trip-Advisor. But that includes unlimited premium alcohol, four restaurants, 24-hour room service, three pools, sailing, snorkeling, kayaking, and more.
TRAVEL TIP: AVOID CONSTRUCTION ZONES. See a suspiciously low price near the end of the high season? Proceed with caution. Resorts often set aside three to six weeks of construction for upgrades and renovations, says Saglie of Travelzoo, and offer discounts to compensate for the trouble.
Hit the Road
BEST IN TRAVEL 2016
MONEY ranked the eight largest rental car chains based on average daily rates from Kayak and customer satisfaction ratings of airport shuttles, the reservation process, the pickup and return processes, and overall costs and fees from J.D. Power.
Enterprise was the runaway winner when it came to cus-tomer satisfaction, scoring top marks for its cars, reservation process, pickups, and returns. "When you leave the location, you've been asked at least twice, "How's the customer service been today?"" says Rick Garlick of J.D. Power. But the white-glove treatment doesn't cost an arm and a leg. While Enterprise isn't always the cheapest option, customers still rated it No. 1 in value for its costs and fees. Earn loyalty points with Enterprise Plus.
Alamo's prices are 7.4% lower than its sister company, Enterprise (they are owned by the same parent corporation) but has only slightly lower customer-satisfaction ratings. That makes Alamo popular among cost-conscious travelers, Garlick says. Plus, you can save even more if you join Alamo's loyalty program, which auto-matically shaves another 5% off your rates and gives you access to other deals and perks. "The loyalty program makes it easy to enjoy benefits like complimentary upgrades within a short amount of time," says Saglie of Travelzoo.
TRAVEL TIP: DRIVE A BETTER BARGAIN. Unlike airlines and hotels, car-rental companies generally don't charge cancellation fees. Continue to shop until you're at the rental counter. If you see a better rate, cancel and drive away in the cheaper car.
Set Sail for Less
BEST IN TRAVEL 2016
Part floating hotel, part bottomless buffet, part portholed tour guide, cruise ships may be the hardest workers in the travel biz. To find the best, we compiled surveys of cabins, food, and more from industry sources Cruise Line, Cruise Critic, CruiseCompete, and Allthingscruise.com, as well as from our sister magazine Travel + Leisure. Then we looked for where fares held steady or declined in recent years. We even checked with the CDC for the cleanest lines.
No doubt about it: A Crystal Cruise (crystal-cruises.com) is a splurge. Rates on seven-night trips average around $7,700 per person. But that's a relative bargain for this luxury line, with the average fare down 6% between 2014 and 2015.
What do you get for your money? A true all-inclusive experience (no fees for food or beverages, or gratuities, for instance) and an almost two-to-one staff-guest ratio. Crystal ships are also more intimate, with about 500 rooms, compared with 2,000 for the mega-lines.
And you can find deals-—if you plan well ahead. Book before April 29 for travel in 2017 and you can land a seven-day Caribbean trip for $2,050.
It was a Princess ship that starred in the "70s TV series The Love Boat, and the line has been a main-stream favorite ever since. With weeklong trips hovering in the $2,200 per person range since 2013, Princess gets high marks from cruisers for its rooms and food. Some Princess ships hold more than 3,500 passengers, but the line is known for some cozy innovations, such as its "movie under the stars" on the top deck (ice cream, popcorn, and blankets included).
TRAVEL TIP: BOOK IN THE NEW YEAR. While you can luck into a last-minute deal anytime, cruise lines are eager to fill their ships, so many offer early-bird incentives. Look for cabin discounts, free upgrades, deals on drinks, and excursion packages.
What's in the Cards?
BEST IN TRAVEL 2016
A good credit card can be a great traveling—and saving—companion. To make our selections, MONEY compared the cards' sign-up bonuses, rewards, and fees. Then we consulted the pros at NerdWallet and ValuePenguin for their calculations.
BEST GENERAL TRAVEL CARD
Chase Sapphire Preferred
You can cash in your stash at the rate of 1¢ for each point earned, but devote your collection to travel and each point is worth 25% more: 10,000 points will buy you $125 worth of airline tickets or a hotel room stay. You can transfer the points to one of Sapphire's partners, which include United, Southwest, and British Airways; Hyatt, Marriott, and Ritz-Carlton hotels; and more. Chase waives foreign transaction fees for Sapphire Preferred customers, and if you have to cancel your trip because of illness or bad weather, the card provides $10,000 in travel insurance. ANNUAL FEE: $95 (waived first year)
BEST HOTEL CARD
Starwood Preferred Guest
Starwood points are worth about 2.3¢ each when they're redeemed for hotel stays, much more than the Hilton HHonors card and the IHG Rewards Club Select. You can also transfer your Starwood points to more than two dozen frequent-flier programs; you even get a 5,000-point bonus when you transfer 20,000. To reap the card's benefits, you'll have to stay at one of Starwood's 1,200 hotels, but those include Westin, W, and the St. Regis—some of the nicest brands. Starwood also charges no foreign transaction fees. ANNUAL FEE: $95 (waived first year)
BEST LOYALTY AIRLINE CARD
Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier
Other cards offer higher sign-up bonuses and similar rewards, but this Southwest card gives you more value per transaction than its rivals—a third more than the Gold Delta Skymiles card, estimates ValuePenguin.com's Robert Harrow. That means you can earn a free flight from Dallas to Baltimore with your 25,000-point sign-up bonus alone and still have points left over. Best of all, you get 6,000 free bonus points each year. ANNUAL FEE: $99
TRAVEL TIP: RING UP LOYALTY POINTS. Many travel services let you earn or redeem their loyalty points with a partner in another industry. If you're deciding between two companies, check if you're already eligible for one of them via a partner program.
BEST IN TRAVEL 2016
MONEY started with the 11 largest domestic airlines and 27 largest international airlines based on market share, biggest fleets, and most passengers. MONEY then ranked the airlines based on average fares, average wait time, baggage and change fees, and customer-satisfaction ratings (for reservations, check-in, boarding, aircraft, flight crews, in-flight services, food and drink, entertainment, seat comfort, service, amenities, fees, and overall value).
The best thing about no-frills Southwest Airlines is that the low price (just $256 on average, according to Hopper) includes so much. Want to check two bags? They're free. Need to change your reservation at the last minute? No problem. You won't be able to choose your seat ahead of time, but many fliers are happy to trade that small reassurance for a fee-free flight—customers rank Southwest No. 1 in value for cost and fees, according to J.D. Power. "You don't feel like you're getting slapped around," says Clampet of Skift. Plus, Southwest has become competitive with the major legacy carriers, so you can fly it almost anywhere.
Alaska Airlines doesn't fly only to Alaska. This regional airline has started to compete with big carriers on popular cross-country routes like L.A. to New York City and offers a lot of flights in and out of the Pacific Northwest. Alaska also offers some of the best fares in the industry: The average flight costs just $199, according to Hopper. Then there's the service. Alaska has attracted a loyal following with its perks, like regional beer served onboard, says Travelzoo's Saglie. And Alaska will get you where you need to be—it has one of the highest on-time arrival rates in the industry.
When you're taking an 18-hour flight to Asia, you want to hunker down with some good movies and tasty food. Customers give Singapore some of the highest ratings for amenities like food, drink, entertainment, seat comfort, and value for the money, according to Skytrax. "Singapore Airlines is known for being among the very best in terms of service," Saglie says. "Flying that route on another airline, even if you're saving on the ticket, you tend not to get the quality of experience." And at $703 per average fare, Singapore is still less expensive than half of international airlines, according to Hopper.
TRAVEL TIP: TREAT YOURSELF. Check out first class-—prices for premium seats have dropped 20% to 30% in the past few years, Saglie says. Short flights feature some of the best first-class deals, since frequent fliers usually don't cash in miles for briefer trips.
Get Miles and Miles
BEST IN TRAVEL 2016
MONEY ranked the frequent-flier programs at the nine biggest airlines based on overall customer satisfaction; ease of earning points and exchanging them for an upgrade; and cancellation fees.
While frequent-flier programs usually favor globe-trotting business travelers, JetBlue's program is a rare good deal for leisure travelers. You need just 15,000 points to earn elite status—the lowest threshold in the industry. What's more, family pooling allows you to collect your points with your spouse's and your kids', an unusual perk that helps the points add up faster. Elite status will get you two free checked bags, expedited security, and complimentary spirits on long flights.
Alaska Airlines is one of the few carriers that still lets you earn points based on miles flown, not dollars spent. That's a big plus for leisure travelers, who don't often pay the full business class or even coach fare, explains Saglie of Travelzoo. You'll need just 12,500 points to earn a free one-way flight, and 20,000 points for elite status and its priority boarding, second free checked bag, and more.
TRAVEL TIP: LEAVE ON WEDNESDAY. The secret to saving on airfares: Fly when others don't. On average, seven-day trips starting on Wednesdays are 15% cheaper than seven-day trips that start on Sundays, according to data from Fareness.com, a site that helps people find dates with the lowest fares. Flying on an "off-peak" week-—away from big holidays—you can often cut your fare by 30% to 50%, says Fareness.com founder Scott Wainner.
BEST MONEY-SAVING APPS
MONEY rated the most popular travel apps, then tested each to find which ones could save you the most money. The winners:
SKYSCANNER Using data from every major airline (including Southwest), this app selects itineraries based on shortest layover, optimal departure times, and best price. Especially on overseas flights, Skyscanner often finds flights that are cheaper (by $100 or more) than you could snag on your own.
BEST MONEY-SAVING APPS
GASBUDDY Crowdsourced data on fuel prices nationwide. We found an average differential of 41¢ a gallon across five metropolitan areas. Use it before you return the rental car.
BEST MONEY-SAVING APPS
OPENTABLE Make a lunch or dinner reservation and earn points that can be converted to gift cards. Some restaurants offer 1,000 points, worth $10 (though the majority give you 100 points, or $1). The app works at more than 33,000 restaurants worldwide.
ON THE WEB
HOW MUCH TO TRAVEL IN?…?
Having trouble deciding where to go? Check out our interactive map for a quick price comparison of more than 200 top vacation destinations worldwide. You'll find it, along with travel videos and additional guides, at money.com/besttravel.
BEST MONEY-SAVING APPS
BOOKING.COM Links to more than 800,000 hotels with especially good deals (up to 50% off the list price) on same-day reservations.
WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE VACATION DESTINATION? TELL US ABOUT IT: [email protected]l.com
BEST MONEY-SAVING APPS
HOPPER Search for a route, and the tool shows you a daily breakdown of the lowest airfares. If your departure dates are flexible, you can save hundreds of dollars. The app will also alert you when the price drops.