Beat the lagging loonie: How to travel affordably this reading week

The falling loonie is threatening to ground Ottawa’s sun-starved students this reading week.

With the American dollar exchanging at $1.41 Canadian as of this writing, inflated pricing has understandably scared some students away from a beach vacation on their February ‘study’ break.

“I cancelled a trip to South Beach,” says Alana Henry, a fourth-year University of Ottawa student. “Late in the school year those several hundred bucks extra beyond what I budgeted was a deal breaker.”

Suppliers are offering more promotions to help offset the falling dollar, with Air Canada Vacations extending their No-Tax Boxing Day sale to the end of January. But Canadians booking a vacation package in USD pricing, or traveling to southern US destinations, are facing a steep bill this winter.

Not helping matters is the double-whammy taking effect due to the timing of the statutory winter holidays. Family Day and Easter, combined with March Break in between, sync up one after the other between February 15 and March 25.

“This year, they are really one right after the other, and that makes the prices seem high for the majority of the season,” says Omar Guechtal, a travel agent at the Flight Centre on Bayshore.

Sensible money-saving strategies for budget-conscious student travelers can still go a long way.

Last-minute booking through online deal surfing is a popular method for students looking to get out of the country, but travel agents emphasize the importance of booking and planning in advance this winter, especially when taking into account the current state of the loonie.

“When people go to a sun destination, they will typically look into doing an excursion or two during their visit,” says Guechtel.  “These will be in US dollars at the destination, versus Canadian dollars if you book them here. “

Currency conversion fees associated with charging incidentals – day trips, shopping, meals — to a credit card at the vacation destination only compound the problem.

It’s also not possible to arrange a group trip to a party resort at the last minute, which travel agents recommend as the single best way to save money for students going away with their friends.

“If you can get 10 people or more going somewhere, group rates will apply and can generate some very interesting savings, ”says Guechtel.

“Depending on the resort, groups of 15 to 30 will provide a free stay at a resort, and this saving can then be shared amongst all participants,” adds Ana Tremblay, manager at Algonquin Travel and Cruises in Gloucester.

For an Ottawa student, a two-hour, $20 Greyhound ride down the 417 could also help lessen the blow.

“Students in Ottawa who are willing to travel out of Montreal stand to have a bit more choice and save some money,” says Tremblay.

Picking a destination

While Tremblay warns the flood of American tourists into Cuba has impacted lower-priced availability in the country, “Cuba and the Dominican Republic are still the most price-worthy destinations with many possibilities for party resorts.”

Guechtel echoes that suggestion.

“Cuba is still very good value for your dollar — always has been.”

“For some reason, Punta Cana has become very expensive. I find the value you get for the prices they’re asking isn’t there.”

A couple of factors make Europe a more attractive bang-for-your-buck destination this winter and spring. February [or March] break is not high season for Europe, so airfare stands to be more affordable now compared to the summer.

“There are some very decent flights to Europe going on right now. Air Canada regularly has flights to London for under $1,000 per person,” says Guechtel.

“There are some very cheap ways to spend a week in a European capital.”