CHICAGO – Nothing stirs the blood of baseball fans quite like “pitchers and catchers report.”
A harbinger of the coming season, the words mean players are reporting for duty in Florida and Arizona and spring training is about to be in full bloom. The 30 major league teams begin workouts by the end of next week and play games every day in March.
Most die-hard fans dream of making at least one late-winter pilgrimage to Florida or Arizona to watch their favorite players and top prospects.
Spring training is much more popular than it used to be, and that has its drawbacks. Crowds are the norm, it’s harder to approach players and the beer is overpriced, just like in the regular season. You might even have to buy tickets from scalpers for exhibition games, for Pete (Rose’s) sake.
But ballparks are newer and still cozy, more hotels have sprung up within a walk or short drive, and it’s easier than ever to take in games at several nearby ballparks.
There’s no shortage of other attractions, from Florida’s beaches and famous tourist attractions to Arizona’s desert, golf and Phoenix entertainment.
Even after 30 years of heading south every February – first to Florida, now Arizona – Chicagoan Grace Zwit still gets excited about going to spring training.
“I don’t think it’s any less an experience than it used to be,” says Zwit, senior director of minor league operations for the Chicago White Sox. “It’s still a great experience.”
For those about to make the trek, here are some travel tips for planning a trip that doesn’t strike out your savings.
Half the 30 major-league teams practice in Florida’s Grapefruit League, the other half in Arizona’s Cactus League.
Go to Major League Baseball’s special spring training page for an overview: http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/tickets/spring–training.jsp. It has nifty maps for both states showing at a glance where the teams are based in relation to each other, as well as a trip planner with driving directions to all spring ballparks.
You can find more hotel packages in Arizona, where all 15 teams now are based within an hour of each other in and around Phoenix. It’s also a golfer’s paradise with more than 300 courses in the metropolitan area.
Teams are much more spread out in Florida, so advance planning is more important, as is a rental car. With Florida’s diverse tourist industry, baseball fans will find plenty of nongame offerings but not as many deals targeting them.
Find a master schedule, some spring training history and other useful information at http://springtrainingonline.com.
The key to a successful spring training trip is to plan early, says Zwit, who just planned her 31st. Otherwise you can encounter really high fares.
You should still be OK for a March trip. But don’t put off making reservations any longer.
For finding deals on fares, www.kayak.com and www.airfarewatchdog.com are among the best price-comparison sites. Kayak lets you look at a bunch of travel sites at once, while Airfarewatchdog is great for setting up low-fare alerts to particular destinations.
For ease of booking, Expedia has a new link that shows options for the combined price of a flight and four nights at hotels near your team’s stadium: www.expedia.com/daily/promos/deals/spring–training.
Don’t forget Southwest Airlines’ website because few travel sites sell the discount carrier’s tickets (BookingBuddy is an exception).
Leaving on a Saturday can help cut your airfare costs. It’s a less-popular travel day than Friday or Sunday, so many more inexpensive options are available, according to Bill Miller, senior executive of travel booking site CheapOair.com.
Booking airfare first and hotel later is a common strategy, but not necessarily the best. Travelers who book both in one transaction save an average of $500, according to Expedia spokeswoman Sarah Keeling. That’s because hotels offer bigger discounts that way.
Target a location that’s within walking distance of your team’s ballpark, if possible, or within a reasonable drive of several. The big travel booking sites Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity can get you started.
For the best room rates, consider traveling at midweek. Tourist hotels generally charge less from Tuesday through Thursday. If you can fly only on weekends, look to big chain hotels that cater to business travelers rather than resorts. The corporate hotels may have more rooms and better rates on weekends.
Consider time-share properties, vacation-home rentals and condos as a way to get more space for your dollars. Dining out can be one of the biggest expenses of your trip, and having a kitchen or kitchenette to prepare some meals can cut costs significantly. Visit Homeaway.com, Condodirect.com, Discovervacationhomes.com or VRBO.com, which stands for Vacation Rentals by Owner.
If you haven’t tried a name-your-own-price site such as Priceline or Hotwire, now might be the time. You can get bargains of up to 60 percent off if you’re OK with knowing the neighborhood and number of hotel stars but not the specific hotel when you book.
Team websites often offer package deals that can include accommodations, game tickets, rental car, gift bag, perhaps even a chance to take batting practice at the ballpark.
Check resorts and hotels, too, for packages that can cover such items as meals, spa treatments, golf fees and water-park passes.
Buy tickets as early as possible, especially for popular teams with big fan bases.
Order through individual teams’ websites, the Major League Baseball site or, for Arizona games only, www.cactusleague.com. Some hotels sell game tickets, too.
Be prepared to dig deeper than you might expect if you want a good view of the action. Field-level box seats commonly run $25 to $30 or more. At the Boston Red Sox’s brand-new JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla., it costs $35 to sit on the faux Green Monster – a replica of the famous left-field wall in Fenway Park – and $46 for a home-plate dugout box.
The good news for last-minute planners, families and the frugal: Most teams have unreserved lawn seating for less than $10. You’re still out at the ballgame, at least.