woman on a boat (Photo:Courtesy of Essence)

ROAD TRIPPER

April D. Thompson, 30
Occupation: Marketing manager
Location: Atlanta
Driving into a gorgeous horizon sounds romantic—until you confront your first dilapidated motel or fight exhaustion at the wheel. That's exactly why April D. Thompson included some splurges along her 2,015-mile solo trip from Los Angeles to Georgia last November, even as she kept a lid on her spending. "I wanted to take my time and rest along the way," says Thompson, who chose to drive between six and eight hours a day and only during sunlight. "It's easy to incorporate a little luxury on the road, especially when you plan for it." That plan included stopping to savor a delicious Latin meal at The Mission (themissionaz.com) in Scottsdale, Arizona ; grooving to CDs by Rihanna, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj; and checking in at Beauty & Beyond spa in Houston for a massage and manicure.
And because she'd done her homework by perusing state tourism-board Web sites to find discounts on hotels and restaurants, she discovered a grand-opening deal at The Saguaro hotel in Scottsdale. The hotel's staff—eager to please its first patrons—agreed to take $40 in parking fees off her bill and offered her a free selection of its best appetizers, reducing her food outlay as well. All told, Thompson's savvy choices shaved about $1,200 off what turned out to be a spectacular jaunt.

FREQUENT FLIER

Kiratiana Freelon, 32O
ccupation: Writer
Location: Chicago
Kiratiana Freelon first caught a case of wanderlust during her junior year at Harvard, when she studied abroad in Munich, Germany. "I fell in love with experiencing other cultures, languages and foods," says Freelon. That love was reinforced when Harvard granted her a traveler's dream prize—a $20,000 fellowship for a trip around the world. Freelon used that experience to launch a series of travel guides, including Kiratiana's Guide to Black Paris (Eunique Press).
Since then, her travels have taken her to places as far-flung as Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Morocco, South Korea and Brazil. En route, she's learned a thing or two about landing inexpensive amenities that feel first-class. Take Paris, for instance. Four months before her July 2009 trip, she cruised hipmunk.com, kayak.com and bing.com—three of her go-to airfare search engines—and snatched up an $830 flight direct from her hometown of Chicago to the City of Light. That's a savings of at least $170, since tickets to Paris during high season often run $1,000 or higher from a major U.S. city. As for a hotel, she knew she wanted to stay in Marais, a stylish Right Bank neighborhood filled with clothing boutiques and furniture shops and one of her favorite museums, the Centre Georges Pompidou. Rather than booking a pricey $250-a-night room, she researched affordable accommodations on secretsofparis.com. She ultimately booked a room at Hôtel Bellevue et du Chariot d'Or (hotelbellevue75.com), which came with breakfast and Wi-Fi for $80 a night for nine nights—a savings of about $1,000. "With some strategizing," she notes, "any international trip can be within reach."

SEA CRUISER

Devon R. Harrington, 47
Occupation: Owner of Devonear, Inc., a community mental health center
Location: Miami
When Devon R. Harrington graduated from Howard University in 1989, she and a few classmates celebrated with a cruise to The Bahamas. "That's when I got a passion for cruising," she says. Since then, she has taken to the high seas more than 20 times—to destinations that include St. Lucia and St. Thomas, Bora Bora, Italy, South Africa, Ghana, Greece, Turkey and Tahiti. "Cruising is like being on a floating city," she says. "You only have to unpack once, and you get a lot for your money."
But cost cutting requires you pay attention. In 2006, for instance, Harrington noticed that her favorite cruise company, Blue World Travel—which operates the all-Black Festival at Sea cruise—was advertising an eight-day summer excursion from Costa Rica to Miami, her hometown. "That meant I only needed a one-way ticket to Costa Rica," says Harrington, who used her American Express Platinum points toward a free flight. And since she booked the cruise in October, she got the early-bird special—a $250 savings. Once she'd reserved her space (she always books a suite with a veranda because she loves having breakfast on her own deck), she paid the balance in monthly installments.
For a savvy cruiser, the savings needn't stop once aboard: For another cruise last year to The Bahamas, Harrington and her honey took their own champagne, packed their own snacks and snapped their own photos—avoiding the little extras that can add up on such a trip. They also connected with other travelers and took group cab rides for sightseeing. Harrington estimates that such planning ahead can save between $800 and $1,000 per cruise.