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The Ulimate Travel Bargain
How to Travel in Florida for Free
by Roland Flick

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Vacationing is a America's most popular pastime and every year, tens of millions of people head off to some vacationing spot just to get away from it all and add some excitement to their lives. But vacationing today ain't cheap, so alternatives are sometimes called for.

While some people prefer to travel alone, a lot of people like the idea of traveling with a group because (a) everything is pre-planned so there are few unexpected surprises, (b) all of their needs are taken care of, they know exactly how much they're going to spend and, like they say, there's safety in numbers - and economy.

If you enjoy traveling with friends and people with similar interest, one way to cut your vacationing costs is to earn yourself a free trip - one hundred percent complimentary, absolutely no charge. All it takes is the desire, a little imagination and some effort on your part and you could find yourself traveling to some of the most exotic spots in the world without once reaching for your cash, travelers checks or credit cards.

The secret to traveling free is to interest a group of people in traveling together on a group tour. In most cases, you can offer a reduced rate on everything from getting-there transportation to meals because buying for many is always cheaper than buying for only one. If you can interest people, there are travel agents, hotel managers, transportation providers and tour organizers out there eager for your business. Since cash reimbursement might be prohibitive (then you'd be a salesperson and that might require a license,) they pay you back with free stuff - you travel along with the group and get free transportation, free hotel room, free meals and free things the people in the group will be paying for.

In compiling this article, we contacted people in the travel industry and asked: "If someone could provide you with X-number of people willing to help you book a group tour to Florida, would you compensate them in some way?" 95-percent said they would, and the compensation ranged from a free one night stay (hotel room) for rounding up a small group for an overnight stay at a nearby resort, to (get this!) a free all- expenses paid trip to Orlando for finding 38 participants for a 21- day tour. Of course, what you get depends on how many people you can round up, where they want to go, for how long and how much they're willing to spend, but there's something free out there for almost everybody.

One tour operator in Miami gave this example: if someone could provide fifteen people for a six-day Caribbean cruise (regular price $1,200 per person, the group's price was $980 per person), they could go along free. A tour operator specializing in dive trips said someone could come along free of charge if they could find skin divers willing to buy a 7-day diving trip to the Keys.

Who'd be interested in joining your tour group? Anyone who likes to travel, who likes to save money by taking advantage of tour group rates and who likes the convenience of traveling with friends or people with similar interests. There are a lot of people who fall into that category. Every year, millions of people sign up for group tours for the above reasons. You can find participants from among friends, co-workers, neighbors, club members and even total strangers. If you're lucky enough to discover a business link like attending a conference, seminar or workshop, your participants might be able to deduct the cost of the tour as a business expense. You might be able to arrange a tour through a tour operator for people interested in everything from antique shows in Boston to car races in Indianapolis.

You can start by contacting a travel agent or tour operator somewhere in Florida. You can find their names in travel magazines, the travel section of your local newspaper, on the Internet or the Yellow Pages. Not everybody is interested in reimbursing you for your promotional efforts, but enough are to make this worth a few phone calls. Explain you`re interested in putting together a group trip and have them make some suggestions as to locations. As a beginner, you might want to set up a group trip to some popular vacationing spot because it's easier to sell a group tour to a place everybody wants to visit than it is to put together a trip to some place only you would like to visit. After you get the knack of it, you can pick the destination point and work with the tour operator on what should be included in the package.

The easiest way to interest people in a group tour is to pass the word around, post notices on bulletin boards, circulate flyers, contact newsletter and local newspaper editors and try to get as much free publicity as possible. If you belong to a club made up of people who have similar interests, you can set up a tour to a national show or exhibition, a competitive event or even a concert. Nashville and country music, Lake Placid and ski jump competition and Miami and high-powered boat races come to mind.

When Helen and Jack Hoskins retired a few years ago without fulfilling their dream of vacationing in Florida, they went to work promoting a 16-day, group tour. Helen scheduled a Let`s-Visit-Florida night at the local country club, decorated the room with free travel posters provided by the Florida Tourist Office, passed out literature and even prepared authentic Conch dishes for a buffet. When the fifteen minute travel film was over (she borrowed it free from the tourist office), and the tour operator got done explaining what would be included in this great trip, thirty people raised their hand and shouted..."Let`s do it!" The trip was scheduled for a couple of months later and Helen and her husband got to go along free.

If you're still not convinced that free travel is a possibility, try this test: pick a large hotel in some large, nearby city or some well-known resort anywhere in the United States. Call and ask to speak to the sales office or reservations manager. You can find the toll-free numbers of major hotels and resorts in the Sunday travel edition of large city newspapers or get them from the toll-free operator at 1-800-555-1212. Explain you're thinking of setting up a trip and would like to arrange accommodations at their hotel for twenty people (or ten couples) for, say, five to ten days. Ask them the regular room rate, the group discount room rate and you'll find the discounts somewhere in the 15-20-percent range. Ask them how many people or rooms you would have to arrange for a free room for yourself.

As a test, we called three hotels in Miami, Florida and two out of the three offered us a free double room for the same length of time our participants stayed. As a bonus, the manager offered to supply two of us with two free meals daily if we would put together a package where participants not only stayed at the hotel, but ate breakfast and dinner there every night...the room and meal price to be included in the per-person tour rate. As an incentive, he offered participants a choice of any of four entrees on the dinner menu for $8 per person. Some of these entrees ran as high as $12, so an additional discount could be offered participants.

If free vacationing sounds like your solution to the high-cost of getting away from it all, start beating the group tour drum. If you beat hard enough, someone's bound to listen and if enough people listen and get interested, you`re on your way.