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To lure hesitant bookers, travel firms sweeten the deals  Nov 23, 2008

For travelers wary about the cost of taking a vacation to the Caribbean or other distant points this winter, economic relief may be in the offing.

In addition to a flurry of discounts from hotels and resorts, many companies are rolling back cancellation penalties, slashing booking deposits and promoting money-back guarantees to encourage hesitant clients to put something on the books.

Grupo Posadas, the Mexican hotel operator, has extended a 25 percent-off sale at its Aqua and Fiesta Americana resorts through Dec. 21 for bookings made by Dec. 15.

In the Bahamas, Nassau Paradise Island is offering a $500-cash-back rebate to guests who book an air-and-hotel package at participating resorts for seven consecutive nights or longer by Nov. 30 for travel through February. Guests who stay three to six nights can receive $250.

And ResortQuest Hawaii properties are offering discounts of up to 20 percent to guests who book by Dec. 1 for travel between Jan. 2 and Dec. 21, 2009.

In the Caribbean, hotels on St. Kitts and Nevis are promoting Worry Free vacations by waiving cancellation fees on bookings made by Dec. 14. Book the Fall in Love package and save 25 percent off a four-night stay or 30 percent off a seven-night stay.

Meanwhile, some industry giants are changing the way they do business. Liberty Travel, a travel agency chain based in Ramsey, N.J., recently began promising not just to match but also to outdo competitors' prices by $10 per adult and $5 per child if a customer finds a less-expensive airfare, travel package, cruise or tour quote, a pledge the company calls its Price Beat Guarantee.

And Globus, which includes Cosmos, Monograms and Avalon Waterways, has done away with single supplements, typically $550, on 11 new vacations to Europe to give solo travelers an incentive.

The jitters in the economy are even creating a crack in the booking policies of luxury brands.

Windstar Cruises, which operates a three-ship fleet of yachts, is giving travelers more time to pay its $750 deposit by requiring just half of the payment within three days of booking for 2009 trips made by Dec. 15. The remainder is due Jan. 15.

In some cases, hotels are waiving fees. Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain, near Scottsdale, Ariz., which had charged a penalty to guests who cancel within 72 hours of a trip, is allowing guests to reschedule and apply that charge toward a future stay.

Customers of Crystal Cruises, a luxury cruise line based in Los Angeles, will find a few policy changes this winter. The company is allowing guests to cancel 45 days in advance (down from 75), reducing deposits to 5 percent from 10 percent for 2009 itineraries (except the Full World Cruise) and giving travelers more time to pay deposits. Crystal also is promoting its price guarantee, which protects guests who have signed up for a cruise if the company subsequently offers a sale.

These moves are a big shift for the travel industry, which had become accustomed to raising prices and holding clients to strict booking terms. But as the economic slowdown sinks in, companies are being forced to respond. Seventeen percent of respondents to a recent Maritz Research poll canceled a vacation in the last six months. Another 6 percent shortened a trip.

"The economy has everybody skittish," says Mimi Weisband of Crystal Cruises, where bookings are down about 10 percent so far for 2009.

"People are feeling paralyzed. Hopefully, this will help them make their plans."

To lure hesitant bookers, travel firms sweeten the deals
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