In Napa Valley, Highway 29 (the main artery of wine country) is already filling up with cars on weekends -- and it's not even Memorial Day. Looking for a reservation at one of Yountville's famed Michelin-starred restaurants? According to OpenTable (www.opentable.com), most times are already taken for the upcoming three-day weekend.
"Memorial Day is one of the three biggest weekends of the year," said Trent Ghiringhelli, director of sales and marketing for Page Wine Cellars (http://pagewinecellars.com), which has a tasting room in downtown Yountville. "It's a busy, busy week."
If you're hitting the road this weekend, you won't be alone. In its annual Memorial Day Forecast, AAA estimates that nearly 35 million Americans will be traveling over the holiday, a slight increase from last year. That bump is despite gas prices that top $4 a gallon in some areas and higher prices for airfare, hotels, and car rentals.
AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet attributes the increase in travelers partially to "an improvement in the overall domestic economic picture." Yet AAA's survey found that people are still cost-conscious: Overall spending for the weekend's travel is expected to be $692, a decrease of 14 percent from last year.
I, too, will be saving money this Memorial Day -- by not traveling. In fact, the three-day weekend will be the only one in the 30-day period where I will not be going anywhere. And I planned it that way, specifically to avoid the crowds and higher prices that come with holiday weekend travel.
If you're still in the midst of planning your summer travels, here are a few tips on when to go that may save you not only a few bucks, but a little sanity:
Avoid holiday weekends. Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day make up the backbone of summer travel. Yet the long weekends rank among the worst as far as cost and inconvenience are concerned. Even the difference of one weekend can save money on hotels, airfare and car rental, simply because you aren't competing for services with so many other people.
That's what Bing Travel (www.bing.com/travel) found in its 2011 Summer Forecast. The cheapest week to travel this summer is May 30-June 5, with domestic airfare averaging $518 for a round-trip ticket, according to Bing Travel's forecast. The most expensive week is June 27-July 3, averaging about $595.
Go midweek. Most travelers know that airfares and hotel rates are almost always cheaper during the week. What many people don't think about is that your experience at the destination itself can also be better when less people are around.
In Napa Valley, for example, many wineries that would turn you away on the weekend will welcome you with open arms on summer Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, said Sandra Bell of Bell Wine Cellars (www.bellwine.com).
"If you are the type who wants to get a lot of attention, come during the weekdays," Bell said. Her tours not only include a tasting, but a look at the Chardonnay and Merlot vines outside the winery's office.
Keep school schedules in mind. One reason that the week after Memorial Day is cheaper than others is because kids in many parts of the country aren't out from school yet. You may see similar savings during the last week of August, depending on how reliant the destination is on family travel.
Think about shoulder season.You've already missed May's cheaper prices. But there's still time to plan ahead for September, when the weather is still warm in many places, and the summer crush clears out. National parks in particular are good during this period.